Blue Bomber Report Record: 3–15–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Buck back in spotlight

Has flown under radar in camp, but that's about to change

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By this point, you already know everything you could ever want to know about the minutiae of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive line.

You have been treated to reams of coverage about the battle at the middle linebacker spot this year between Pierre-Luc Labbe and Henoc Muamba.

You know what Jovon Johnson thinks about cowbells, which Bomber player's girlfriend makes the best cupcakes and what the wind tolerance is for putting a steel girder in place on the roof of a football stadium.

You know all those things -- and much, much more -- if you've been paying even a little attention to the comings and goings in Bombers training camp this month.

But what you haven't heard much about -- at least not until this week changes all that -- is the state, health and mindset of Hutchinson, Kan. native Buck James Pierce.

You remember him, right? He's the starting quarterback for the Bombers.

"I'm excited to put the last few weeks into motion a bit," Pierce said after practice Monday, referencing what will be his 2012 debut Wednesday evening when he leads the Bombers against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Canad Inns Stadium in the final pre-season game for both teams. "It's going to be exciting being at home."

It is a monument to two important changes in the atmosphere around Bombers training camp this season that the single most-important man on the Bombers roster this coming season has managed to mostly fly under the radar through the better part of three weeks of training camp.

First and foremost, that's a function of how much more at ease everyone -- Bombers management, coaching staff, fans, Pierce's Mom -- are these days with the state of Pierce's overall health.

It was just a year ago at this time, of course, that the single biggest question mark hovering over the Bombers was the state of Pierce's health. Pierce's 2010 season had ended with a dislocated elbow on Labour Day and Pierce at this time last year was attempting to become the first professional quarterback to return to play after suffering such an injury to his throwing arm.

And on top of the elbow, there were nagging questions generally about Pierce's overall reliability after an injury-filled CFL career.

But after a 2011 season in which Pierce started a career-high 16 games, the durability questions are on the back burner and the battle between quarterbacks Joey Elliott and Alex Brink over who will become Pierce's immediate backup is more of a curiosity this year than the make-or-break issue it seemed like it might be last year.

"People have confidence that I'm going to go out there and help us win," says Pierce, adding that with confidence comes some expectations too. "I have to continue to improve in areas I need to improve on. And that's what I'll do.

"For me, it's learning some new schemes and helping bring some of the young guys together in some key spots."

The second reason Pierce has flown under the radar so far this pre-season is less reassuring. Bluntly speaking, the reason someone as important as the starting quarterback has been largely overlooked in the discussions about the Bombers so far this year is simply because many of the other issues facing this team are so serious right now.

Topping that list is the offensive line, of course, where Steve Morley is the only returnee from last year who is currently both on the roster and healthy enough to play.

But there are other big question marks -- on the defensive line, at middle linebacker, at receiver -- that need to be resolved before the regular season opens next week and have eclipsed Pierce as the thing that keeps Bombers GM Joe Mack up at night.

Still, this is the CFL where the pass is king and Pierce's time in the shadows has now drawn to a close with the eight-year CFL veteran poised to see his first action of the season Wednesday night.

So what can we all expect to see? How about we let Gary Crowton, the club's new offensive co-ordinator, tell you what he's seen in the man he's entrusted to install the new offensive scheme.

"My first impressions of him have been very good," says Crowton. "He's a very coachable. And from a talent standpoint, he's got a very quick release, he's a very tough competitor and he's a pretty accurate passer.

"And what's been happening is his experience level and his talent are starting to come together as he's matured as a professional. He started 16 games last year and it just seems like everything is coming together for him. And so hopefully, he just keeps getting better and better and has a good year."

Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice agrees that there appears to be a hard-won maturity to Pierce this spring, but says the task in front of his starting quarterback remains the same it's been the last two seasons. "What I'd like to see him do is move the football, put us in a position to score and lead the team."

The curtain rises Wednesday night.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2012 C1

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