BRADENTON, Fla. -- The first thing you need to know about Drew Willy is, yes, he's still the starting quarterback for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2014.
Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea made that crystal clear to reporters Tuesday when it was suggested the consensus among casual observers was that Willy was outplayed at Bombers mini-camp this week by another Bombers quarterback, Robert Marve, a former Florida high school star the Bombers acquired over the winter.
Don't even go there, said O'Shea, repeating his pronouncement from earlier this winter that the Bombers will live or die in 2014 on the arm of Willy.
"Obviously we have to watch all the film again," said O'Shea, "but Drew Willy is our starter."
But while that might be the beginning of this Drew Willy story, it's not the start. For that, we need to travel back in time a few years to when Willy was a wide-eyed and untested protege of a quarterback coach at the University of Buffalo named Danny Barrett.
"Drew was like a sponge from the first day I got there. All he wanted to know was how he could get better," Barrett recalls of Willy's record-breaking career in Buffalo. "He was a technician, a student of the game. He always knew where everyone on the offence was supposed to be at all times.
"And he was always positive. I don't think you'll ever see a day with Drew Willy when he's not smiling, good or bad. That's the thing I remember most about him -- even on tough days, he was upbeat and ready to go."
'Drew was like a sponge from the first day... All he wanted to know was how he could get better. He was a technician, a student of the game. He always knew where everyone on the offence was supposed to be at all times'
Barrett, of course, is uniquely positioned to judge whether Willy, who has just four career CFL starts, is now ready to lead the Bombers offence, as O'Shea and the rest of the Bombers braintrust believe. That's because in addition to coaching Willy for three seasons at the University of Buffalo, Barrett also has 15 seasons as a CFL quarterback and seven seasons as head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders on his resumé.
So, is the 6-3, 215-pound Willy ready to be a starter after two years as the backup to Darian Durant in Saskatchewan? According to Barrett, Willy's not only ready -- he's got the makings of one of the league's all-time greats.
"The guy I would most relate Drew to in terms of quarterbacks in the CFL that I've coached and played against," says Barrett, "is Ricky Ray, to be honest with you. He's a guy that's very cerebral about the game. There's nothing flashy about him, but he's always going to put his team in position to win games.
"From an arm-strength standpoint, they're about the same. And mobility, they're about the same. So relating him to Ricky Ray, that's saying a lot, because Ricky has done a tremendous amount for the league and his teams, winning championships for them. I see Drew as a guy in the same mould. He's going to be smart, he's going to be sharp, he's going to put his players in the best position to make plays.
"And I don't think he's going to do anything to hurt the team."
Now, that's pretty bold talk, equating a guy who rode the bench in Saskatchewan the last two seasons with a man who's won three Grey Cups and will be in the CFL Hall of Fame the moment he becomes eligible.
But it sounds a little less crazy when you hear almost the exact same kind of gushing assessment of Willy's CFL future from another CFL quarterbacking legend, Bombers assistant general manager Danny McManus.
As McManus sees it, Willy's time has come, just as his own did early in the 1990's when McManus came off the bench in Winnipeg to launch a career that ultimately ended in that same CFL Hall of Fame.
'Drew has all the tools, and now it's just a matter of putting it all together... He's had enough experience, it's a chance for him to go in there and prove to people he can play that position... I like his makeup, I like his intangibles. And I'm 100 percent behind him. I think Drew can be a very good quarterback in the CFL'
"Drew has all the tools and now it's just a matter of putting it all together," says McManus.
"It's time for Drew to show what he can do. He's had enough experience, it's a chance for him to go in there and prove to people he can play that position. We all got that shot. I got that shot as well early in my career. I was an unproven commodity too in 1992 when the Bombers gave me a chance to play six games.
"Look, you can never predict the future. If you could, I'd be buying lottery tickets today. You never know. But I like his makeup, I like his intangibles. And I'm 100 per cent behind him. I think Drew can be a very good quarterback in the CFL."
McManus has little patience for the skeptics who suggest Willy's sample size of professional playing time is simply too small to make an assessment one way or the other -- and, as such, the Bombers are making a risky gamble betting their season on him.
"Everyone has an opinion about quarterbacks, but unless you played it you really don't know anything about it," says McManus. "Anyone can play quarterback on a game station or in flag football. But when you got guys coming in and trying to knock your head off, it takes a different kind of person to stand back there and know that they're going to get killed, but if they can wait just one more second this receiver is going to get open.
"And Drew has that. He will stand in there and take the pain."
Of course, if a willingness to simply stand in the pocket and "take the pain" is the job description, then Buck Pierce would still be the Bombers starting quarterback. It's more complicated than that and Willy knows it.
"But I also feel like it's my time," he insists. "I feel like all the hard work I've done in the off-season and all the hard work I've done during the season the last couple of years, it's really gotten me to this point where it's my time to go.
"And I will be ready to go when the lights come on."
He'd better be. The Bombers fan base was tested like never before in 2013 by a 3-15 season and a problem-plagued rollout of Investors Group Field. And the general consensus is that the Bombers leadership would be wise not to further test Bomber nation's patience and finally, mercifully, give them someone under centre in 2014 who they can believe in.
Barrett believes Willy is the right man at the right time for the Bombers in that regard, describing a character guy off the field who sounds a lot like Pierce.
"Drew's one of those guys you want to represent your team in the community and around the league," says Barrett.
"The fans will be attracted to him, towards his personality and the type of person he is. He's going to represent that ball club in the right manner, the way a true Blue Bomber would. He's going to be that guy."
That may turn out to be true in the future, but Willy was actually the third QB the Bombers wanted to be their "guy," inking Willy last winter only after earlier advances to Henry Burris and Zach Collaros were both spurned.
But Bombers GM Kyle Walters says that chronology is not indicative of where Willy was on the team's wish list. And Walters insists Willy is poised to reward the club's faith in him.
"He's ready -- above everything else, we really believe he's ready," says Walters.
"It's now or never. He's sat, he's watched, he's learned. And now it's up to Drew Willy. It's time for him to step up and show he can do it."