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Etienne grabs a clue

Two seasons later, Canadian receiver solves puzzle of how to play game

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Remember how during the off-season there was some speculation whether this would be the year the Winnipeg Blue Bombers finally give up on receiver Jade Etienne?

Things have changed -- quickly and dramatically.

"I think he's really come a long ways," head coach Tim Burke said Saturday afternoon following practice at Investors Group Field.

And then Burke dropped this bombshell: "I think (Etienne) is not only competing to be on the 42-man roster, he's competing to be a starter."

Say what now?

The notion that Etienne could be one of the five starting receivers for Winnipeg in 2013 is so stunning, Burke was asked to clarify:

Are you saying Etienne has a legitimate chance to unseat Kito Poblah, a man the Bombers expected to be their next great Canadian receiving mainstay when they took him in the 2011 supplemental draft?

'First year, he probably had no clue. Second year, he was still kind of clueless. And now this year, he finally understands what it takes. He worked hard in the off-season, put 10 pounds on and came back with a confident attitude'

-- Tim Burke on Jade Etienne

Burke didn't skip a beat.

"I think he and Kito are battling it out for that position," he said.

And with that, the Blue Bombers suddenly have their most dramatic storyline of training camp.

For those coming late to this party, some background:

The Bombers took Etienne fourth overall in the 2011 draft to the surprise of just about everyone else in the league who had Etienne pegged as a much later round pick.

But the Bombers head coach at the time -- Paul LaPolice -- loved what he saw in Etienne at the University of Saskatchewan and so the club took a flyer, taking Etienne ahead of fellow receivers like Nate Coehoorn and Marco Iannuzzi, who've made big contributions in their first two years in Edmonton and B.C., respectively.

Not so here in Winnipeg, where the Bombers have waited for Etienne to develop. And waited. And waited some more.

Through two seasons in Winnipeg in 2011 and 2012, Etienne showed himself to be almost completely useless on special teams and as a receiver -- with a single catch for 11 yards late last season representing his only professional statistic.

But then something happened this spring. After an excellent rookie camp in late April, Etienne has spent the last couple of weeks lighting up practice almost every day, getting open time after time against the first-team defence and catching everything thrown even remotely close to him, including a pair of grabs in the Bombers' pre-season game against Toronto last week.

It has been an epic transformation in Etienne that Burke described on Saturday in blunt terms.

"I think he now understands what it takes to play in the CFL, whereas before I think, well, you know...'" he said. "First year, he probably had no clue. Second year, he was still kind of clueless. And now this year, he finally understands what it takes. He worked hard in the off-season, put 10 pounds on and came back with a confident attitude.

"I think he finally figured out, 'Hey, I can do this.' "

Yep, that about sums it up, said Etienne, who credits an intense workout regime in the off-season with giving him that rare combination of more strength and more speed.

"I honestly think the leg workouts are benefitting more than the upper body work," said Etienne, who at 6-4 also has the height to be a receiving threat in the CFL

"(The leg workouts) are turning into more power in the sprints and I've been getting compliments from coaches and players, saying, 'You look faster.'

"As long as I continue to practice and play the way I have, I'm confident I will be just fine."

And if that happens, Poblah will be something the opposite of fine, representing a turn of events for Poblah this spring almost as dramatic -- but in the reverse direction -- as the one for Etienne.

There were huge expectations for Poblah when the Bombers drafted him out of Central Michigan in the 2011 supplemental draft after the CFL ruled late that he qualified as a non-import and was draft-eligible.

But Poblah has been mostly a disappointment in Winnipeg thus far. Injuries cost him all but three games of the 2011 season. And then last year, he got into 17 of his club's 18 games but mustered just 417 yards in catches and showed a nasty weakness for dropping balls any time he was in traffic.

Making matters worse for Poblah, he sustained an undisclosed injury in last week's pre-season game. Although the club says it's not serious, it has sidelined him during practice since -- even as Etienne continues to take full advantage of the spate of injuries that have decimated the Bombers receiving corps during this year's camp.

"When I came into the league, I had no idea this league was so physical," says Etienne. "In the CIS, I was just flat out faster than everyone. So I didn't know how to get out of jams, I didn't know how to block properly.

"But the Bombers knew if they trained me well and I got the playbook down that I could become a really good receiver. Now I just have to take the opportunity and run with it."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2013 B6

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