NEWS
11/11/2011 02:57 EST | Updated 01/11/2012 05:12 EST

Calgary quarterback Drew Tate the unknown X-factor in playoff game with Eskimos

EDMONTON - Before the Edmonton Eskimos can beat Calgary Stampeders quarterback Drew Tate in the West Division semifinal, they first have to figure him out.

They'll have to learn on the fly.

The 27-year-old Texan is 3-0 since taking over from veteran Henry Burris. It will be his first start against Edmonton on Sunday at Commonwealth Stadium.

"To tell you we're not a little bit nervous and uptight about him would be a lie," said Edmonton head coach Kavis Reed. "We don't have enough information (on him), and coaches are more comfortable when we have a library of information on players.

"We do know he's been accurate. We do know his decision making has been outstanding. We do know he manoeuvres in the pocket exceptionally well."

Tate has his chance to shine after years of bouncing between the Stampeders, Saskatchewan Roughriders and NFL's St. Louis Rams.

What the Eskimos do know about the six-foot, 190-pound quarterback is that, given time, he can embarrass a defence with highlight-reel throws, even in tight coverage over the middle.

"He's definitely not scared to take some chances," said Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray. "I've seen him push the ball downfield when he's got a match-up he likes.

"That's what you've got to be careful of."

In his three wins, Tate completed 66 per cent of his passes for 791 yards and four touchdowns, but also has five interceptions.

"He's not a Henry Burris-type guy that can throw 80 yards off his back foot or get out of the pocket and throw it all the way across the field," said Ray. "He's definitely more of a guy that likes to see things ahead of time, anticipate, get the ball out that way."

Edmonton linebacker Rod Davis said if Tate is allowed to set his feet to throw downfield, the Eskimos are in for a long afternoon.

"I won't call him a gunslinger, but when you've got a guy not afraid to make a mistake, you've got a helluva quarterback on your hands," said Davis. "We just gotta get pressure on him early and get him out of his comfort zone.

"He's not a rookie but we just got to get him rattled early."

That may be a tall order.

Tate's resume, according to profiles in the Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette dating back to 2005, chronicles a quarterback who has drawn strength from adversity.

The hard knocks began at Robert E. Lee high school in the gulf coast oil-refinery community of Baytown, Texas, east of Houston.

Life under the Friday night lights was, at times, miserable. He played for his stepfather Dick Olin. The cheers were always mixed with the jeers of "Drew sucks!" "Drew sucks!" from fans either crying nepotism or just being plain tired of seeing this kid shred their secondary.

He was single-minded. As an elementary student working as the ballboy he'd break down film of opposing quarterbacks. He made varsity as a freshman and shattered passing records.

He also had a volcanic temper. He was a loner on the baseball diamond, infamous for chewing out the umpire and even his teammates.

Even with Calgary, Tate admits during the game he's best left alone.

But Tate has come through in the big game before. In fact, at Iowa University, he became a legend on Jan. 1, 2005.

With his team trailing by two points on the last play against the defending BCS-champion LSU Tigers, Tate brought the Hawkeyes to the line of scrimmage at midfield.

With 70,000-plus fans making a deafening roar at Orlando's Capital One Bowl, the Tigers went into a prevent defence, challenging Tate to beat them with his arm.

Tate dropped back to his own 35-yard-line, planted and threw the ball 50 yards in the air to receiver Warren Holloway.

It was the limit of Tate's arm strength. Holloway had to gear down for just a split second, as three defenders converged, to catch the ball in stride over his inside left shoulder, then race the final 15 yards for the winning touchdown.

"Touchdown Iowa! Touchdown Iowa! I can't believe what I just saw!" shouted the announcer as Tate raced toward the pile of jubilant Iowa players, yanking on both chinstraps and holding up his helmet high in victory.

NOTES: Eskimos tailback Jerome Messam, listed as questionable with an undisclosed lower-body injury, practised Friday. The Toronto native who grew up in Brampton, Ont., is a key member of the offence. He finished third in CFL rushing with 1,057 yards — becoming the league's first Canadian-born 1,000-yard rusher since 2000 — and the threat of Messam presents opens up passing lanes for receivers like Fred Stamps and Adarius Bowman.