It's a crash course at a new position, and Brandon Stewart is a quick study.
It wasn't enough for the freshly minted Bombers strong-side (SAM) linebacker to play his first game at the position against Travis Lulay and the defending Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions last week. In front of him now, the former cornerback gets his second-ever start at the new spot against Anthony Calvillo, the most prolific passer in professional football.
Two weeks of practice, two games against the CFL's best. When is the final exam?
"It's like being a rookie all over again. I'm a rookie vet right now, so it's been kind of fun," Stewart said as the Bombers continued preparations for the Montreal Alouettes.
"I just want to play and help the team, so I'll go wherever they want, and going up against two of the top (quarterbacks) to start, that's just part of the challenge.
"It was good to get that first game out of the way," Stewart added.
The returns on Stewart's first game at SAM were positive. Defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke, the man who felt the Bombers needed an upgrade in the position (which led to the release of Clint Kent after camp), said Stewart was "above average" against the Lions, and projects the 26-year-old to grow into one of the better cover linebackers in the CFL.
"I thought he'd make a bunch of mistakes, but he didn't," Burke said. "He didn't have one mental mistake. He made a couple read mistakes and a couple technique mistakes, but I can live with that for his first game.
"You're going to see him make more plays from that SAM position than what we've had."
Stewart isn't the only new face in the Winnipeg linebacking corps learning on the fly these days. Second-year Dustin Doe made his first defensive start against B.C. and will be in the weak-side spot again against the Alouettes, filling in for an injured Marcellus Bowman. Pierre-Luc Labbe, in his fifth CFL season, has only seen a handful of action at middle linebacker before being named the starter this year.
The initial course load is interesting for this group: The first two quarterbacks the Bombers face this season provide contrasting styles, with Lulay as the prototypical CFL quarterback who can burn you a multitude of ways. He loves to throw it to all areas of the field and spread the ball around to the playmakers, while -- and this is what makes him so dangerous -- looking to run for a first down through the middle of the field.
Tucking the ball under the arm is the last option for Calvillo. He's a throw-first, throw-it-away-second type of quarterback, and he's not looking to leave the comforts of the pocket too often. But he's still the pivot that presents the biggest challenge to a defence, according to Burke.
"He's a better scrambler than people give him credit for," Burke said. "He's not fast, but he knows when to go... But it comes back to the way he can deliver the ball. He's so accurate with his throws."
Burke said the Bombers linebackers will have their hands full with the Montreal offence, specifically with the play-action coming out of the backfield.
"B.C. was a good start for this group," he said. "Montreal will be a better test."
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