Blue Bomber Report Record: 7–11–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New Blue bloods

Willy, Moore, Banks, Randle and Alexander hold key to Winnipeg's renewal effort

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Wade Miller took over as CEO of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last year promising to create enhanced revenue streams for the club.

He succeeded by increasing the demand for game programs.

The busiest people in Winnipeg may turn out to be the people selling programs at Investors Group Field tonight for the 2014 CFL regular-season opener between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts.

A new Bombers regime under Miller promised changes after a disastrous 3-15 season and man, did he ever deliver.

With Wednesday's release of this week's Bombers depth chart, we can now finally put a quantifiable number on the depth and breadth of the personnel changes on this team this year.

Depending on what measure you'd care to use, either just over half or just under half of last year's team has been replaced.

It's just over half -- 26 out of 46 players -- if you compare this week's 46-man roster to the one in place for Winnipeg's final regular-season game on Nov. 2.

It's just under half -- 20 out of 46 players -- if you compare this week's 46-man roster to the entire Bombers roster at the end of last season, including the injured list and practice roster.

Either way, the changes that have swept through the team -- and we haven't even touched on the wholesale changes to the Bombers coaching staff and front office -- run so deep that the unknowns heading into the 2014 season are almost unlimited.

But some changes are more important than others, so we've chosen to focus on the five new players we think will be most critical in determining whether this team can turn itself around:

 

Quarterback Drew Willy

6-3, 215 pounds

FAST FACT: Willy has missed only two starts due to injury in his entire pro and college career combined (thumb -- sophomore year).

HOW THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: A pending free agent, the Bombers acquired Willy from the Saskatchewan Roughriders Feb. 6 in exchange for non-import receiver Jade Etienne and then signed Willy to an extension. Etienne has since been cut by the Riders.

WHY THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: A revolving door at starting quarterback in 2013 was an unmitigated disaster and the Bombers brain trust was determined to finally find some stability at the position.

They made offers first to Zach Collaros and then to Henry Burris but were spurned both times, leaving Willy as the last, best option. That chronology suggests Willy was Winnipeg's third choice for starting QB but the club has been unequivocal since signing him they are united behind him as their starter.

THE QUESTION MARK: Can a man who has started just four games in five seasons of professional football blossom into a bona fide starter in the CFL?

QUOTE: "I feel like I've learned from some great players and teachers throughout the CFL and NFL. And I've just been taking all that in for five years of professional playing to be ready for this moment."

 

Slotback Nick Moore

6-2, 195 pounds

FAST FACT: With 73 catches for 1,105 yards for the B.C. Lions in 2013, Moore finished third in the CFL in receiving yards behind S.J. Green of the Montreal Alouettes and league-leading Fred Stamps of the Edmonton Eskimos.

HOW THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: Signed Feb. 12 as a free agent. Winnipeg outbid all other suitors with a reported offer of $185,000 per season.

WHY THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: A couple reasons.

First, with former CFL rookie of the year Chris Matthews gone to the NFL, the Bombers needed a big new target for Willy to throw to and Moore, who is coming off a breakout season, fit the bill.

And second, after striking out in a bid to land a couple of other highly coveted free agents -- defender Craig Butler among them -- the Bombers front office needed to make some kind of splash to demonstrate to fans their commitment to rebuilding a beleaguered franchise. At day's end, Moore was the biggest free agent still available to the Bombers.

THE QUESTION MARK: Can Moore build on last season's career year or does he revert to the form he showed in his first two seasons in the CFL during which he caught a combined 37 passes for just 449 yards?

QUOTE: "I definitely have to step up and show them what I'm worth -- that I'm worth what they gave me."

 

Linebacker Kory Banks

5-11, 185 pounds

FAST FACT: Banks is an eight-time division all-star and four-time league all-star, taking down both awards most recently in 2012.

HOW THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: Acquired Jan. 31 in a trade with the B.C. Lions in exchange for non-import WR Kito Poblah.

WHY THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: Two reasons.

First, new defensive co-ordinator Gary Etcheverry plays a scheme that requires versatile players who can play multiple roles and Banks has a long reputation as a guy who can play linebacker and defensive back with equal skill.

Second, the Bombers needed to change the culture in a locker-room that had grown too comfortable with losing in recent years and Banks is known as both a team leader and fiery competitor.

THE QUESTION MARK: At 34, are Banks' best years behind him (he will start the season on the one-game injured list) or will his career be rejuvenated in Winnipeg?

QUOTE: "I'm gonna do whatever it takes... just to let the young guys know I'm buying in. So if they see that, my ego's pushed aside, I'm pretty sure they'll do it, and that's what it's going to take. I'll do whatever."

 

CB Chris Randle

5-11, 200 pounds

FAST FACT: Randle started 28 games for the Calgary Stampeders over the last two seasons.

HOW THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: Signed as a free agent, the Bombers outbid multiple suitors -- including the Stamps -- with an offer that will pay Randle $120,000 this season.

WHY THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: The Bombers had grown weary of former boundary cornerback Jovon Johnson -- both on and off the field. Johnson spent too much time in 2013 chasing receivers from behind and the club felt he also no longer fit into the new culture they are hoping to instill this season.

With Johnson out of the picture, the Bombers needed a new boundary corner and Randle's steady play in Calgary -- his four interceptions last season were sixth in the CFL -- for one of the best defences in the league made him a good fit.

THE QUESTION MARK: Can Randle build on a career year in 2013?

QUOTE: "There's some shoes to fill and responsibility to take on. And I'm willing to take it on... But it's not like I have to do it myself. I don't have to be defensive player of the year. I just have to help make our team the best team I can."

 

CB Donovan Alexander

6-0, 180 pounds

FAST FACT: Alexander will be the first Winnipeg-raised player to start for the Bombers since offensive lineman Matt Sheridan.

HOW THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: Signed as a free agent on Feb. 25, 2014.

WHY THE BOMBERS GOT HIM: Three reasons.

First, the Bombers front office was tired of Brandon Stewart's act and believe Alexander can regain the form he showed during a career season in 2012, when his five interceptions and 43 tackles for the Eskimos earned him the nod as a West Division all-star at safety.

Second, Alexander's Winnipeg roots fit nicely into the club's attempt to rebuild the Bombers brand, both in the community at large and among the city's legion of junior football players, who were almost completely ignored during the Joe Mack regime.

And third, Alexander's passport is invaluable on a club light on Canadians who can start.

THE QUESTION MARK: Is the injury that sidelined Alexander through almost all of training camp -- and will see him start the season on the one-game injury list -- a sign of injury problems to come for a player heading into his eighth CFL season?

QUOTE: "I've had a lot of great experience playing with a lot of great players. Had some good years. But the only thing left is a Grey Cup."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2014 D3

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