For the last two seasons the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have ended their year on a high note, winners of back-to-back Grey Cups, including a thrilling overtime win over the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton last December.
On Sunday, the Blue and Gold hope to get off on the right foot, with training camp set to begin, marking the official start to a new campaign — as well as the hunt for a third straight championship. While much of the title-clinching team from 2021 is returning, there are also several fresh faces in the mix, and head coach Mike O’Shea is hoping his troops are ready to impress and aren’t taking any previous success for granted.
“Guys shouldn’t sit back and wait for things to come to them, they should try and go out there and take a play, make sure they make their mark that way,” O’Shea said Friday, just following the conclusion of the club’s three-day rookie camp.
“I don’t know that feeling comfortable is going to serve us at all. That’s the worst thing that we can do, is feel comfortable.”
There’s still one sizable hurdle to clear, and that’s negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, with the current one set to expire on Saturday. these talks usually take until the final hour, so let’s assume — and hope — all systems are a go.
Until then, here are five storylines to keep an eye on heading into training camp.
1) It’s an area of the roster that undergoes the most turnover from year to year, and once again the Bombers will be leaning on their scouting staff to unearth some quality talent in the secondary. Of the five starting defensive backs, plus the strong-side linebacker, there are two holes to fill, with a third spot also up for grabs to begin the season.
Corner DeAundre Alford (Atlanta Falcons) and SLB Alden Darby (Hamilton) have found new football homes, while safety Brandon Alexander won’t be available for the foreseeable future as he continues to heal from off-season knee surgery. Mercy Maston, who was part of the 2019 Grey-Cup winning team but suffered an Achilles injury in training camp last year, figures to be a seamless replacement for Darby, adding to a group of veteran starters that also includes Winston Rose at corner and Deatrick Nichols and Nick Taylor at halfback.
That leaves one corner position open and a weeks-long replacement for Alexander at safety. The Bombers acquired Tyquwan Glass (Montreal) and Malcolm Thompson (Hamilton) in free agency, with Nick and Noah Hallett, Demerio Houston, Redha Kramdi and Josh Miller all back from last season.
Then there are all the recent Canadian draft picks, as well as plenty of quality Americans, bringing the combined total of DBs in camp to 27. May the best men win a spot.
2) A relatively tidy offseason was delivered a serious jolt with the departure of running back Andrew Harris. Harris, a Winnipeg native and face of the franchise since arriving in 2016, signed with the Toronto Argonauts in February, ushering in a new era of Canadian talent in the Bombers backfield.
While Harris will be missed, what’s left is a formidable duo of Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine. Oliveira, another Winnipegger, is primed to take over the starting role, with Augustine providing a quality Plan B, each possessing a skillset capable of carving up opposing defences.
Indeed, all eyes will be on Oliveira, who has stated publicly in the past that he’s ready for primetime, and showed flashes of that last season, registering 429 rushing yards and two touchdowns while playing for an oft-injured Harris. The 24-year-old has put in a solid winter of work and though Oliveira has big shoes to fill, he has plenty of confidence in his own abilities and the respect of his teammates to shine.
3) There wasn’t a lot of inconsistency with Winnipeg last season, save for the kicking game. And while the Bombers managed to find its sure foot by season’s end, acquiring Sergio Castillo from the B.C. Lions at the trade deadline, they’re once again back on the search after Castillo signed in Edmonton.
Ali Mourtada, who the Bombers signed partway through 2021 after failed attempts by Marc Liegghio and Tyler Crapigna, only to then flame out himself, appears to be the leading candidate for place kicker. Mourtada struggled a year ago, connecting on just more than half of his 15 field-goal attempts. But his issues had more to do with accuracy than leg strength, and with the hashmarks moved closer to the middle of the field this season, and with a full training camp to acclimatize to his surroundings, the expectation is he’ll find his groove.
It’s unclear if the Bombers are looking for one kicker to do both place kicking and punting, like they had with Justin Medlock for years, or return to a two-foot system. The answer to that question might depend on how well Liegghio or newcomer, global punter Tom Hackett, can perform over the next three weeks.
4) After guiding the team to back-to-back championships, the Bombers rewarded quarterback Zach Collaros to a one-year contract extension worth a league-high $550,000. While it’s great to have the reigning league and Grey Cup MVP back, the story out of camp will be whether he can gel with an offence that’s missing a few key pieces from last season, including a pair of receivers.
Indeed, while Harris might have a notable replacement in Oliveira, and the Bombers should bounce back fairly easily with the departure of Canadian offensive lineman Drew Desjarlais (New England Patriots), what might the fallout be with the exits of receivers Kenny Lawler and Darvin Adams? Lawler led the CFL in receiving yards last year, with 1,014, and while Adams wasn’t a world-beater by any stretch, logging just 441 yards, he did account for four touchdowns and had a strong connection with Collaros, particularly in the post-season.
The Bombers did add veteran Greg Ellingson on opening day of free agency, and inked Jalen Saunders last month. Each have had their recent struggles, but if they are able to regain some of their magic from prior years, Winnipeg should be in good hands.
They join a group of projected starters that also include Nic Demski, Rasheed Bailey and Drew Wolitarsky. That said, don’t rule out the newcomers; football doesn’t guarantee anything and, like Lawler, who led the Bombers in yards in both his seasons in Winnipeg, the next big name could be from an unknown out of camp.
5) He might not have registered high on the causal observer’s “uh-oh” radar, but anyone who watched Steven Richardson closely last season knows how big a hole he left, both figuratively and literally, on the Bombers defensive line after signing as a free agent with B.C.
Richardson, who stands just 5-11 but weighs a heavy 304 pounds, was overshadowed on the D-line, with the spotlight, deservedly, often on dynamic defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat. But Richardson played a massive role in stopping the run and his absence has been felt among the returning D-linemen.
The good news is the Bombers have Casey Sayles and Ricky Walker returning, both of whom logged playing time last season. Sayles, who had five sacks and 28 defensive tackles, will get the chance to push for an even bigger role, while Walker, who finished with a sack and eight tackles, will also be in a similar fight.
Like defensive backs, this is an area of the roster where newcomers can often shine in camp. Getting a strong push off the line has been the trademark of the Bombers stellar defence in recent years, and this season, with Jake Thomas projected to start again at tackle, should be no exception.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.