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Blanchette: Ex-EWU star Sherritt comes up big when sold short

J.C. Sherritt woke up the other morning to the mortal brown of a Canadian November, the streets of Edmonton, Alberta, still bare.

By midafternoon, it was under 10 inches of snow.

“The people in Spokane think they know cold,” he said. “They don’t.”

Well, our ignorances are many.

For further example, no matter how much wonder Sherritt manufactured on a football field during Eastern Washington’s wild ride to a national championship in 2010 and the trophy that confirmed him as the best defensive player in college football’s great middle class, doubts remained whether someone would pay him to make more.

Even his current employers, the Edmonton Eskimos, shared them during his first Canadian Football League training camp.

They had him on the cut list.

So it should be no surprise to learn that better pitching has only brought out another level of best in Sherritt. A week ago, he broke the CFL’s single-season tackles record. This week, he was anointed the West Division’s nominee for the league’s defensive player of the year award. Sunday, the Esks meet Toronto in the first round of the CFL playoffs after a 7-11 regular season, which with his alchemist’s knack might as well be a springboard to the Grey Cup.

“Not the exact route we planned,” he said, “but once you get to the playoffs, everyone has the same record.”

The Eskimos have had one of those years – a strong start, followed by an avalanche of injuries. Sherritt estimated the number of defensive linemen who have “rotated through” this season at 16, and he’s been nursing a knee injury for the better part of two months that cost him one game and limits practice time.

And they haven’t dealt with the bounces of the season very well. They’ve lost to Calgary four times, and six of their 11 losses have come by a total of 10 points.

“The third week of the season, we beat Winnipeg by 32 points,” Sherritt said. “Two weeks later at their place, we lose by one.”

Yet for all the hiccups – the Esks dropped their last four games and still made it over the razor wire into the playoffs – Edmonton has found an accidental icon in Sherritt, who much as he disdains the little-engine-that-could role he’s always assigned finds himself typecast again.

He now plays middle linebacker rather than the outside, which gives him even more of the wider Canadian field to cover. And the two-down pace – you punt on third – and 20-second play clock were initially a shock to the system.

“I remember the first game,” Sherritt said. “The coach was talking to me on the sidelines in the fourth quarter and I was trying not to fall over.”

He adapted well enough to be the West’s rookie of the year, a remarkable turn considering his perch on the roster bubble in the spring.

What was that all about? The usual: size.

Sherritt isn’t any bigger than the 5-foot-9 he was when his hometown college, Washington State, passed on him even after he’d led Pullman High School to a 14-0 record and a state title. Everyone else but Eastern passed, too, and all he did there was rewrite the tackle records and win an NCAA title.

It’s always tempting to laugh at all the people who got it wrong, but the fact is the Eagles and Sherritt were absolutely right for each other.

Maybe it’s that sort of hunch that kept former Edmonton general manager Eric Tillman insisting that Esks coach Kavis Reed give Sherritt a longer look. Surely it didn’t hurt to have former EWU teammates Greg Peach and Matt Nichols on the roster to do some subtle lobbying.

Nichols has been lights out as Edmonton’s relief quarterback the last five quarters, though he’ll be back on the bench as veteran Kerry Joseph takes the reins against Toronto. Peach – the FCS Buck Buchanan Award winner two years before Sherritt won it – moved on before the season, signing a free-agent deal with Hamilton.

“Which didn’t make the playoffs,” Sherritt pointed out. “We’ll probably bring that up in a few months.”

That’s about the closest he’ll get to indulging in told-you-so’s.

“I’ve always been realistic in how people viewed me and my size,” Sherritt said. “Just like not having a scholarship offer in high school and then Eastern coming in late, and winding up with the most incredible five years a kid could ask for, I know that last year I was close to being cut. But I was given a shot and I’m thankful for that and the way things have turned out.”