Blue Bomber Report Record: 3–15–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Can a Canadian handle tackle duties on Bombers' O-line?

Bombers have bet a first-round pick the answer is yes

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To say that behemoth offensive lineman Tyson Pencer was a high-risk, high-reward first-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this year would probably be overstating the case, but only partly.

On the reward side, Pencer very definitely has the potential to deliver big and bountiful returns to the Bombers for years to come in exchange for their faith earlier this month in plucking him from relative obscurity to select him third overall.

Indeed, the man who went out on a limb to select Pencer -- Bombers GM Joe Mack -- says he believes Pencer has the talent and ability to be that most rare and highly coveted of player in the CFL -- the ratio changer.

"The fact he has a chance to become a starting Canadian tackle -- they just don't come around very often," Mack said this week.

"And that has a chance to make him a potential ratio changer. Our thought process is we want to have as many options as we can in our Canadian talent level so that, in case we have injuries, you can try a number of different things and don't always have to replace an injured Canadian player with another Canadian at the same position."

So what, you ask, is the downside to drafting a man who was a blue-chip starting tackle with a major U.S. college program? What's this high risk?

Well, it probably isn't fair to say Pencer is high risk exactly, but there is no question the Bombers did take a chance when they went off the board to select Pencer third overall.

There was a reason that Pencer wasn't among the top 15 prospects the CFL scouting bureau put out in the final weeks before the 2012 draft and that reason is in part the worrisome football resumé Pencer brings to the table as a player who had standout freshman and sophomore seasons at Washington State only to get kicked out of school prior to his junior year and have to play last season with the Okanagan Sun of the Canadian Junior Football League.

And then on top of that, there is the worrying fact that Pencer is also well-known among the tight-knit football community on the lower B.C. mainland for his unusual regular workout partner -- a full-patch member of the Hells Angels.

The Angels, of course, are considered by police agencies in Canada to be an organized crime syndicate whose members have been convicted of murder, drug trafficking, prostitution, bombings and other mayhem -- not exactly the kind of company, in other words, a CFL GM wants his young prospect to be keeping.

Asked about it in an interview this week, Pencer identified the individual in question as his uncle, Ken Trommel, and said Trommel has been nothing but a positive influence on him.

"He's family. He knows what my goals are, he knows what I want to do and that's football. The thing with him is he supports me 110 per cent with what I'm doing," said Pencer. "He's been one of my main supporters. (He's) been a great influence in pushing me to get me to get better."

Pencer said Trommel was a power-lifter and he was a major influence in getting him into the gym and working out from a very young age. Pencer added that lately his primary workout partners have been some members of a program he has joined called Game Ready, which includes B.C. Lions Geroy Simon and Davis Sanchez.

As for the abrupt departure from Washington State? Pencer said it was nothing more than bad marks by a young man caught up in the culture shock of going from playing in front of 50 people at his high school in Delta, B.C., to playing in front of 95,000 people against USC at the L.A.'s Memorial Coliseum in his first college game.

"You have to combine football with school and that was tough," said Pencer. "If it had been just football, things would have gone a lot smoother.

"Being a student-athlete at a big Pac-10 school and the acknowledgment you get is just unreal. I had no idea it was going to be like that until I got down there."

While Pencer has seemingly reasonable explanations for everything, he still carries with him the kind of backdrop that can be a flashing red light for a CFL GM who might be concerned about using a high draft pick on a player who might also be carrying some extra personal baggage on his already considerable 6-foot-8, 330-pound frame.

And that includes even a risk taker like Mack, who also went off the board at the 2011 draft in surprising everyone by taking receiver Jade Etienne fourth overall. Etienne didn't show much to reward Mack's faith in his rookie season, although the club remains high on him and the jury is still out on the wisdom of that pick.

But even Mack concedes that Pencer wasn't his first choice when he traded up the draft board to land Hamilton's third overall pick in this year's draft. The player Mack wanted -- but who B.C. selected one pick ahead of Winnipeg -- was defensive tackle Jabar Westerman, who Mack was hoping would fill the gaping hole the Bombers also have on their defensive line following the off-season retirement of local CFL legend Doug Brown.

But with Westerman out of the mix and the Bombers front office not particularly high on anyone else in what they regarded as a shallow draft, the snap decision was to take a shot on Pencer with the hope that his unconventional football resumé and colourful family turns out to be a non-issue.

And if they're proven right, then the Bombers have an opportunity in Pencer to change the very way they field a team.

Generally in the CFL, Canadian offensive linemen are also interior linemen -- either playing the centre or two guard positions -- while the two tackle positions are typically played by Americans.

All of which makes Pencer's Canadian passport and natural position at tackle so tantalizing to the Bombers brain trust. No one is projecting him to be a starter this season -- "I doubt he'll start right away, that'd be tough," said Mack. But it does bear noting that no one expected Pencer to start at tackle in his freshman year at Washington State either.

And yet he did just that. "You don't get that often, a freshman starting on the offensive line," said Harold Etheridge, who coached Pencer at Washington State but is now the offensive line coach at Indiana State. "But he did that because of his athleticism and his maturity.

"He is big, strong and nasty. You have a very good player there. He's a tough kid. He had some injuries, he played through pain. He has the instincts and loves to be a physical player."

Etheridge also had nothing but good things to say about Pencer's family life. "He's a great kid and good family too. Really good parents."

The last word is perhaps best left to another 6-foot-8 lineman from B.C. who the Bombers took a chance on back in 2001 and who rewarded their faith with 11 hall of fame seasons.

"It was definitely an off-the-board pick," Brown said of Pencer, who TSN's draftologist Duane Forde had ranked sixth among the offensive linemen available in this year's draft.

"I guess we're going to find out if Duane Forde knows more," said Brown, "or if Joe Mack knows more."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 0

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