Blue Bombers hopeful Agnew racing clock in effort to make team


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Keenan Agnew’s time with his family has boded well for him. Time, however, is not on his side with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

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Keenan Agnew’s time with his family has boded well for him. Time, however, is not on his side with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Agnew is one of the Bombers’ recent acquisitions, joining training camp on Thursday. That’s left the 24-year-old defensive tackle to play catch up on learning the playbook and with fewer reps in practice to impress the coaching staff as he fights for a roster spot.

It’s undoubtedly the biggest opportunity in Agnew’s career.

Courtesy Southern Illinois University

Aspiring Blue Bombers defensive tackle Keenan Agnew (right) recorded 3.5 sacks in his senior year at Southern Illinois University.

After finishing his career at Southern Illinois University last season, the 6-0, 290-pound interior lineman had a pair of mini-camp tryouts in the National Football League with the Tennessee Titans and New York Jets, with whom his older brother, Ray Agnew III, is a pro scout. He also got a look from the Detroit Lions, with whom his father, Ray Agnew Jr., serves as the assistant general manager.

The family ties don’t stop there. Agnew’s other older brother, Malcolm, is a running backs coach at Sanford University. He held the same position at the University of North Dakota from 2017-19, during which he coached current Bombers’ bell cow Brady Oliveria.

Now in his first training camp as a professional, Agnew is leaning on his family to guide him through the beginning of his pro career. He said he talks to his two brothers, dad and mom in a family group chat every day.

“It’s helped me a lot,” Agnew told the Free Press after Bombers camp at IG Field on Monday. “I’ve got a lot of tips from them about what you can do to make a roster. Just come in and work hard every day. Study your playbook relentlessly and don’t get too down whenever you make mistakes.”

Wise words for a young man who will see his first game action when Big Blue opens its preseason against the Edmonton Elks in Alberta on Saturday at 3 p.m.

Agnew also said he believes the adversity he overcame in college has prepared him to stay even-keeled throughout this process. After starting the first three games in his junior year with the Salukis, Agnew fell out of favour with the coaching staff, leaving him to come off the bench for playing time. He eventually regained his position on the depth chart ahead of his senior year, going on to start all 11 games and finish third on the team with 3.5 sacks.

“That was a tough time, but I think that really helped mould who I am now,” he said. “I might not even have an opportunity like this if it weren’t for that. It really just motivated me to make sure that never happens again.

“All that stuff has prepared me for this. This is a pro league, you’re going to lose some reps. There’s a lot of good players out here, you see it everywhere. And I know this team’s been to three Grey Cups in a row, so I mean, there’s a lot of talent out here. You can’t get too high, can’t get too low.”

One thing Agnew can’t count on is the number of reps he’ll get Saturday.

It’s also unknown to head coach Mike O’Shea, who said he and his staff will develop a plan in the coming days for how reps will be split between veterans who are looking to ramp up for regular-season action, and those battling for a roster spot. He maintained, however, while they always enter with a game plan, things often change once the contest begins.

So how does one maximize what could be such little opportunity?

“Cheat,” O’Shea half-joked.

“It’s funny, but (Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach) Orlando Steinhauer and I have talked about this quite a bit. Brandon Alexander would be a good example, right? He just steals all the reps he can. And then, as training camp goes along, you just have to keep making plays. And if that means taking some risks to make a play, sometimes you have to do that.

“It’s a tricky one, but you’ve got to put yourself in a position to make those plays, and then you got to make them.”

Damian Jackson finds himself in a similar position to Agnew, scratching and clawing for one of the finals roster spots.

The 30-year-old is a long-snapper who doubles as a defensive end, which may be his optimal path at a job with the Bombers. Jackson is still learning the game in many ways, however.

After graduating from high school in Nevada, Jackson followed in his older brother’s footsteps by joining the Navy SEALS, where he would serve for the next four years.

“The goal was to pay for college, and then, also the attraction of being a SEAL led to me to Navy over some of the other branches,” he said.

Jackson played baseball and soccer growing up, but his time in the military built up a solid 245-pound frame.

“I wasn’t really gonna play soccer at that weight, I wasn’t really gonna play baseball anymore. So football, it just fit my body type. I said, ‘It looks fun, let’s do that’,” Jackson said.

“When I first got on the team, they had me at middle linebacker and that was like a whole new world, a whole new language. It was like speaking Japanese to me, I didn’t understand any of it. And that was pretty hard. After a few months, they moved me to the (defensive) line — that made things a lot easier just from a mental standpoint.”

It took three years — and a transfer to the University of Buffalo — for Jackson to see consistent time on the field. A place on the Bombers roster would be quite the payoff for a kid who started playing football just four years ago because “It looks fun.”

“Both are extremely likeable, both have qualities that you want on your team, both play different spots,” O’Shea said of Agnew and Jackson.

“It’s still early in the process. Those are great questions for after a game, when we get to see them a little more in live action against someone who they haven’t already gone up against 16 times. But they’re both very likeable and certainly, they’re here for good reason.”

Twitter: @jfreysam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.

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