Article reprinted courtesy of Fargo Forum and reporter Eric Peterson. Picture courtesy of Edmonton Eskimos and photographer Dale MacMillan.
MOORHEAD—Edmonton Eskimos receiver Brandon Zylstra went airborne to make a first impression in the Canadian Football League, hurdling a defender on his first pro catch in September.
"That kind of opened up a lot of guy's eyes up here," said Zylstra, a former Concordia wide receiver. "It just seemed like a lot of people thought that was pretty cool, especially for your first catch."
That was one of the memorable moments for Zylstra in a rookie season that ended last Sunday with Edmonton's 35-23 loss against the Ottawa Redblacks on a snowy afternoon for the East Division final. The Eskimos fell one game short of the Grey Cup, which is the championship game in the CFL. Edmonton was Grey Cup champions last season.
"We didn't quite get to where we wanted, but I think we did a really good job," Zylstra said. "I'm proud of the team. ... I'm looking forward to the offseason. I know what to expect now so I know how to train better for it. I'm looking forward to that."
Zylstra finished his first season with 34 catches for 508 yards and three touchdowns in six regular-season games. He started the year on the practice squad before being activated in Week 14. He finished third on the team in receiving.
"It's kind of weird now that that season's over," Zylstra said. "It was a good year. I learned ton."
Zylstra had three catches for 83 yards in the East Division final against Ottawa, including a spectacular diving 39-yard catch on the snow-covered field. In the division semifinals, Zylstra had three catches for 30 yards in a 24-21 victory against Hamilton.
"I would say going into next year, he'll be one of those guys that you look to have big things for," Edmonton first-year head coach Jason Maas said. "I feel very confident in Brandon's abilities. He's everything that was advertised from minicamp on, finally when he got his opportunity. You only feel like he's going to get better."
Zylstra, from Spicer, Minn., plans to return to Minnesota for December to spend time with family and friends for the month. After that, Zylstra said he will spend the next few months in San Diego to train with Edmonton teammate Bryant Mitchell, who also plays wide receiver for the Eskimos.
Zylstra shed around eight to 10 pounds during the season with the extra running involved in the CFL game (compared to American football) with the bigger field and player's allowed to be running in motion toward the line of scrimmage at the snap of the football. The 6-foot-3 Zylstra ending the season weighing around 215 pounds.
"I'm going to work on speed, that's my No. 1 thing this offseason, just speed and agility and suddenness," Zylstra said.
Zylstra said he learned patience in his first CFL season, having to wait until Week 14 to get his first opportunity. Zylstra had two 100-yard receiving games in the final six games in the regular season. His top performance was against Toronto with nine catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns to close out the regular season.
Zylstra said he earned more trust from his teammates and coaches each week he played.
"Every week you could see more and more plays where I was like the No. 1, the No. 2 option, the No. 3 option," Zylstra said.
Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly liked what he saw from Zylstra and is excited about the young receiver's potential.
"He's going to be huge," Reilly said. "He certainly showed what he's capable of and he's going to be able to be a huge weapon for us."