Blue Bomber Report Record: 5–1–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'It's not about the award anyway -- it's about the ring' An all-star role player

Willis is one of CFL's elite defenders, but he's only playing part time

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He is officially, as of Wednesday, one of the two best rush ends in the entire CFL.

So it begged the obvious question on the day Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive end Odell Willis was one of five Winnipeg players named a CFL all-star: How come a man considered by the fans, media and CFL head coaches to be one of the two most valuable defensive ends in the league has been for the last month of the season only a part-time player for his own team?

Great question, said Willis. "You'd have to ask the coaches that question. That's their philosophy, not mine. If they say I can only play part-time then I can only play part-time," Willis said Wednesday after a two-hour team practice at the Winnipeg Indoor Soccer Complex.

"All I know for sure is that when Odell Willis is out there, whether it's for eight plays or for 48 plays, he's going to do whatever he can to help his team win."

Which is pretty much a consensus opinion given that Willis -- along with fellow Bombers defenders Jovon Johnson, Ian Logan and Jonathan Hefney, as well as offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte -- were named league all-stars on Wednesday.

The honour meant something different to each player. Logan and Hefney both used it as a moment to reflect on the past and how far they'd come.

"I was undrafted," said Logan, "so it's a great story going from undrafted to a CFL all-star."

"It means a lot," said Hefney, "because I know what I did to get here, where I came from and just all the work I put into it."

For Johnson and LaBatte, the honours were more an opportunity to look forward at all the work still to be done as a team this season, with the East final versus the Hamilton Tiger-Cats looming on Sunday.

"It's just one more stepping stone in the right direction," said Johnson.

"It's recognition and I'll take it," said LaBatte, "but it's definitely not the award we're here for."

But for Willis, an all-star nod was something else entirely after a season that saw him dominate offensive linemen and quarterbacks through the first 15 games, only to find himself benched on all but passing downs for the final three games.

The official reason from the Bombers brain trust for the shift in his playing time was that Willis was judged to be a liability against the run, particularly on a team with extraordinary depth on the defensive line this season.

Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice has never wavered since in his position that Willis remains an important and valued member of the Bombers defence, no matter how many downs he plays. LaPolice paid his respects to all the Bombers all-stars Wednesday, while reminding them to keep their eye on the bigger picture.

"We're certainly proud of what those guys have done," LaPolice said. "But we ended our practice with, 'These are great (personal) accomplishments. We want to be the best team in the Canadian Football League.' "

Willis has chosen his words carefully -- at least publicly -- since his playing time was cut, but has made no secret of the fact he isn't happy about it. And that unhappiness has perhaps also played at least a role in the drop-off in his productivity even when he is on the field, where Willis has been held without a sack in the last four games after registering 13 of them through the first 14 games.

In the end, Willis finished tied for the regular season CFL sack lead with Hamilton's Justin Hickman, the other defensive end named a league all-star on Wednesday.

There would have been, quite understandably, a temptation to use Wednesday's all-star selection as an opportunity for Willis to say, 'I-told-you-so' to the Bombers coaching staff. But to his credit, Willis wasn't biting.

"What's done is done. All I can do now is to do whatever I can to help my team win the Grey Cup," said Willis.

"It's not about the award anyway -- it's about the ring."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

More CFL playoff coverage C4, C5

The honour roll

TORONTO -- The 2011 Canadian Football League all-star team, announced Wednesday by the league. Voting conducted by members of the Football Reporters of Canada, CFL head coaches and fans:

OFFENCE

Quarterback -- Travis Lulay, B.C. Lions.

Running backs -- Jerome Messam, Edmonton Eskimos; Brandon Whitaker, Montreal Alouettes.

Centre -- Angus Reid, B.C. Lions.

Guards -- Brendon LaBatte, Winnipeg Blue Bombers; Dimitri Tsoumpas, Calgary Stampeders.

Tackles -- Josh Bourke, Montreal Alouettes; Jovan Olafioye, B.C. Lions.

Receivers -- Nik Lewis, Calgary Stampeders; Jamel Richardson, Montreal Alouettes; Geroy Simon, B.C. Lions; Fred Stamps, Edmonton Eskimos.

DEFENCE

Ends -- Justin Hickman, Hamilton Tiger-Cats; Odell Willis, Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Tackles -- Aaron Hunt, B.C. Lions; Khalif Mitchell, B.C. Lions.

Linebackers -- Chip Cox, Montreal Alouettes; Solomon Elimimian, B.C. Lions; Jerrell Freeman, Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Halfbacks -- Korey Banks, B.C. Lions; Jonathan Hefney, Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Cornerbacks -- Jovon Johnson, Winnipeg Blue Bombers; Byron Parker, Toronto Argonauts.

Safety -- Ian Logan, Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Placekicker -- Paul McCallum, B.C. Lions.

Punter -- Burke Dales, Calgary Stampeders.

Kick returner -- Chad Owens, Toronto Argonauts.

Five Winnipeg Blue Bombers players -- safety Ian Logan, defensive back Jonathan Hefney, cornerback Jovon Johnson, defensive end Odell Willis and offensive tackle Brendon LaBatte -- were named CFL all-stars on Wednesday. Here's some fast facts:

It was the first league all-star selection for Logan, LaBatte and Willis. Hefney and Johnson were also league all-stars in 2009.

Defensive tackle Doug Brown, slotback Terrence Edwards and offensive tackle Glenn January -- who were all East Division all-stars -- were passed over in the league voting.

With five league all-stars, the Bombers were second only to the B.C. Lions, who had nine all-star nods.

The Bombers had four league all-stars last year. The franchise record for one season is 10, set in 1984 and equaled in 1987.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2011 C1

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