What started in Edmonton and moved on to Calgary is going to be resuming in Saskatchewan.
J.C. Sherritt, the former Buck Buchanan Award winner out of Eastern Washington University and a Pullman High School standout, is headed back to the Canadian Football League where a little over a decade ago he made an indelible mark.
He was a record-breaking linebacker for Edmonton and led the team, then known as the Eskimos to a Grey Cup title. He then started his coaching career in Calgary. Now, after spending five years coaching in three different leagues at the collegiate level, he’ll reunite with some former comrades as linebackers coach and defensive running game coordinator for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Sherritt will head to the team’s home base of Regina in March, with training camp following in the spring for the 2024 season. Preseason games in the CFL start on May 20, the regular season begins June 6 and the season concludes with the Grey Cup in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Nov. 17.
“Their facilities are second-to-none,” said Sherritt from Pullman, where he spent the 2023 season as a defensive analyst for Washington State. “The staff, and even on up to the upper management, gave me a really good feeling about the organization.”
Sherritt reunites with new Saskatchewan head coach Corey Mace, who was defensive line coach in Calgary when Sherritt was coaching linebackers there in 2019. New Roughriders defensive backs coach Josh Bell and offensive coordinator Marc Mueller were also in Calgary, which won the Grey Cup in 2018 with former Eagle Bo Levi Mitchell as quarterback.
“This is an opportunity to get back into coaching in the CFL with people I truly trust and believe in,” Sherritt said. “They are a joy to be around, and it’s a pretty unique opportunity.”
Eastern has long had a tradition of producing players and coaches for the CFL, and Sherritt was among the best.
A veteran of 109 career CFL games in eight seasons, Sherritt was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2012 before winning a Grey Cup with Edmonton in 2015. He had a CFL-record 130 tackles in his second season in the league after having a combined 85 tackles on defense and special teams as a rookie in 2011.
He retired following the 2018 season, finishing with 552 career tackles, 14 interceptions, 15 sacks, 17 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and one touchdown in those 109 games (108 starts).
Mitchell (now with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats) and Vernon Adams Jr. (BC Lions) are starting quarterbacks in the league, and T.J. Lee III is a veteran safety for the Lions. Ryan Phillips is a former Lions safety and currently is the team’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
While at EWU, Sherritt set the school record with 432 career tackles, including a Big Sky Conference-record 170 as a junior. He broke his own record with 176 the next season to help lead the Eagles – along with Mitchell and Lee – to the 2010 FCS championship. That season he won the Buchanan Award as the nation’s top defensive player.
“It will be awesome,” Sherritt said of renewing relationships from EWU that have extended to Canada. “The CFL has been wonderful to all of us from Eastern Washington. It’s been a league that has treated us incredibly well and given us job opportunities. We all hold the league in high regard and have a whole lot of respect for it. We love it.”
At about the same time in January when Sherritt was announced he was returning to the league, former EWU Walter Payton Award winner Eric Barriere was announced as a new quarterback for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“As good as it has been for Eastern overall, it’s definitely been best for our quarterbacks,” Sherritt says. “Eric has some good predecessors who have had success before him.”
Perhaps down the road Sherritt and his fellow defensive coaches in Saskatchewan will be tasked with trying to stop Barriere. Sherritt has had experience with that before while serving as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Cal Poly under former EWU head coach Beau Baldwin in the 2020-21 seasons.
“I remember having to game-plan against him at Cal Poly, and early in his career I’d watch him when I went back to practices,” said Sherritt. “He has all the talent in the world. When you get to this level, once your opportunity arises you have to take advantage of it. I’m sure that will come for him, and hopefully he’ll jump all over it.”
In Baldwin/Sherritt’s first year at Cal Poly – during the winter/spring 2020-21 season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic – Barriere’s Eagles beat the Mustangs 62-10 after leading 45-7 at halftime. Barriere had 324 yards of total offense and three passing touchdowns in that game.
“They could have hung 100 points on us,” laughed Sherritt. “I’m trying to black it out of my memory.”
After his stint at Cal Poly, Sherritt reconnected with former EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding at Auburn. Schmedding was defensive coordinator and Sherritt was a defensive analyst for the Tigers before the staff was let go after the 2022 season. They both landed in the same positions for Washington State during a roller-coaster 2023 season during which the Cougars won four straight to open the season before dropping six in a row.
“You just have to be grateful to be able to coach,” a humble Sherritt said. “There are a lot of coaches I’ve worked with who don’t have jobs right now, and that’s the nature of the beast. But it makes you always thankful for the opportunities. I’ve been very fortunate to learn a lot about football from different staffs, in different places, in different conferences and with different athletes. It’s been very rewarding.”
With the breakup of the Pac-12 casting a cloud over the entire season, Sherritt said he just tuned out the noise and focused on coaching instead.
“You just try to do the best job you can to coach,” he explained. “I’m sure as I step away I’ll probably be a little more upset how that all went down. I have no idea the inner workings – I quit listening a long time ago. Every day is your opportunity to coach as well as you can in the job you are at, and I was very happy and blessed for the opportunity to coach at Washington State. I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
What made the Pac-12 demise even harder to witness was the fact Sherritt grew up in Pullman.
In fact, even before his collegiate and CFL championships, he helped the Greyhounds win the 2005 State 2A title – a distinction of three titles at three different levels of football that Mitchell also has accomplished.
“Anybody who grew up on the West Coast like me, the Pac-12 was what we watched in our entire childhood, and our entire adult lives as well,” he said. “It’s tough to see (it broken up),” Sherritt said of the dramatic conference shifts.
“It’s a different landscape and it continues to change. There is no question about that.”
He’s happy to be back in the CFL where Canadians are passionate not only about hockey and the National Hockey League, but also for their version of football with a larger field and one fewer down. Saskatchewan and the city of Regina do not have an NHL franchise, and that creates support for the Roughriders organization.
Saskatchewan is routinely near the top in league attendance – the team averaged 27,648 per game in 2023 at Mosaic Stadium in Regina.
“They have the biggest fan base in Canada – that’s not debatable,” said Sherritt. “Football is king there. They don’t have an NHL team, so in that region it is all about the ’Riders. Obviously, it’s great to go there with that kind of a fan base.”