BRADENTON, FLA. -- When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers take to the field at IMG Academy here Sunday morning for the first day of their first ever spring mini-camp in Florida, there will be one player for whom the experience will be both comfortably familiar and frighteningly brand new.
Quarterback Drew Willy — the Bombers biggest free agent signing of the off-season and the man they hope will lead their offence in 2014 — knows the world-famous IMG Academy better than most people, having previously attended mini-camps here in 2012 and 2013 as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
But while the setting will be familiar to Willy on Sunday, the role he will be playing here over the next three days will be brand new. Because after serving as the backup to Saskatchewan starter Darian Durant the last couple seasons, Willy will for the first time as a pro be taking the field as his team’s starter.
"It’s a great opportunity and I’m looking forward to it," Willy said in a phone interview on Friday. "I want to go in there and be a leader at all times. I want to make sure I know all the plays and have gone through it, so I can help guys out.
"A lot of guys down there won’t have played in the CFL, so they might need help setting up their waggle and getting set up and stuff like that. So anytime you as a quarterback can take the thinking out of it for guys so they can just play, it will definitely help them."
Willy says the Riders used their time at the IMG Academy in very different ways in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Willy says the Riders had most of their roster, including veterans, come down to Bradenton to give the whole team a head start on main camp. But in 2012, it was just Saskatchewan’s quarterbacks and rookies that were invited down here, which is what the Bombers are also doing this year.
"So I guess in that way, this year is going to be a lot more like my first year," said Willy. "It’s a really beautiful facility at the IMG Academy. It’s pretty amazing how big the place is and how different things are going on. There’s high school kids, all different sports, people paying to go there. They do a really nice job giving you the proper facilities to watch film and get some teaching.
"And they marked off the Canadian field for us the last couple years, so it was nice to have all the Canadian hash marks and things like that. It’s high class — the food’s pretty good. I really enjoyed my time there."
Willy will be one of four quarterbacks in Bradenton — 2nd-year Bombers backup Max Hall and Bombers rookies Brian Brohm and Robert Marve are the others.
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea says he has high expectations for what he wants to see out of his quarterbacks in Bradenton: "I want to see championship play," O’Shea laughed before turning more serious. "I want to see these guys take in the playbook and get out there and compete. I want to see them work together, I want to see how they learn — I want to see it all."
O’Shea declared Willy his starter just one day after the Bombers signed Willy in February, but O’Shea insists that doesn’t mean anything different will be expected of Willy in Bradenton than any of the other QBs.
"He’s got to come down there and learn," said O’Shea. "He’s got the same role as every other quarterback: come down and get a head start on (offensive coordinator) Marcel’s (Bellefeuille) system. I want him to work with the receivers, throw the ball well and make good decisions."