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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Remade Bombers looking like pros

Florida mini-camp puts organization in new light

Posted: 04/17/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Bombers QB Drew Willy at practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

PAUL WIECEK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Bombers QB Drew Willy at practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Photo Store

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Maybe, just maybe, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers found the next Chris Matthews down here this week.

Maybe it was Willie Haulstead, a 6-2, 227-pounder out of Florida State who was fleet and fast and caught everything thrown to him during the Bombers three-day mini-camp at IMG Academy.

Or maybe it was Louisville's Mario Urrutia, who at 6-5 would tower over CFL defensive backs just as Matthews did.

But whether Winnipeg's replacement for Matthews -- their 2012 CFL rookie of the year who signed an NFL deal this off-season -- turns out to be one of those two guys or someone else or no one at all, the biggest reason for Bombers fans to feel good about what their team accomplished at mini-camp this week has nothing to do with what they discovered about the 55 players who attended and everything to do with what the players discovered about the Bombers.

Just listen to what kicker Brett Maher -- a highly coveted prospect out of the University of Nebraska who is being pursued by at least one NFL team -- had to say about the Bombers organization after his workout Tuesday morning.

"I've definitely been very pleased with this organization and with the coaches and scouts and staff that I've been in contact with. That's something that you can't substitute in any business, is working with good people.

"And that's been very reassuring and very comfortable for me..."

You know when the last time someone marvelled at what a good and decent and solid organization the Winnipeg Football Club is? When did Joe Mack show up in town anyway?

And it's not just Maher who noticed this week all the changes that have taken place within the Bombers organization since Mack was punted as GM midway through last season. Indeed, you just had to glance around the field to realize what a completely different organization the Bombers have become over the off-season under CEO Wade Miller, GM Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O'Shea.

Caught up

For starters, there was the fact the Bombers were even in Florida at all, having finally caught up with most of the rest of the CFL and moving their spring camp to Florida for the first time to an IMG Academy that really can only be characterized as world class in every way.

Then there was the targeted and very systemic way the Bombers ran this year's spring camp. Gone was the half-assed mishmash of previous years, when mini-camps under Mack were an indiscernible mix of some rookies, some veterans and no rhyme or reason.

In it's place this week was a camp perfectly designed for two purposes -- drilling the team's four new quarterbacks on the Bombers offence and finding rookie American talent. Period.

And then there was the small army of Bombers scouts all over the field. A scouting department under Mack that consisted of him, former player personnel director Ken Moll and a whole lot of cocktail napkins has exploded this winter to a group that numbered eight when I stopped counting, including a Hall of Famer in new assistant-GM Danny McManus.

Now, does all this mean last year's 3-15 Bombers are going to suddenly challenge for a Grey Cup in 2014? No. If I was making predictions right now I'd still pick the Bombers to finish dead last in their division, only this year it will be the West instead of the East.

(The offensive line looks worse right now, not better. Drew Willy's unproven, as are the QBs behind him. Ratio issues, gaping holes in the receiving corps, linebacker, etc.)

But the larger issue is this -- if turning around a football team is like turning around a ship, then that turn is going to take some time, especially when that ship looked a lot like the Titanic under the previous captain.

The good news for Bombers fans, as I saw it this week, is that not only has this team stopped taking on water, it's actually started pumping some out.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2014 D4

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