Game time for Bombers hopefuls
Preseason tilt gives players a chance to impress in heat of battle
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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have spent two gruelling weeks battling their own teammates and are ready to smack some pads against real opponents in what will be a critical affair for veterans and rookies looking to secure a job.
The Bombers are in Edmonton to play the Elks on Saturday afternoon, the first of two pre-season games for the Blue and Gold. The second exhibition tilt is back in Winnipeg against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on June 2, which will act as the final tuneup before the start of the 2023 CFL regular season just six days later.
“We look to guys to know what they’re doing out there, compete, make plays and set themselves apart,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea following Thursday’s training camp workout, when asked what he’s looking for from an evaluation standpoint. The Bombers held no practice or media availability Friday.
“On film, it would look like they’re doing everything right, that all the assignments are correct. They’re efficient in their movement. It might not add up to tackles or catches or whatever, but they’re always right and always in the right spot.”
The Bombers released a game-day roster early Friday that features a good mix of veterans and rookies. There is a total of 64 players making the trip, all looking to make a positive impression in what could be their one and only chance at seeing live action.
Winnipeg is taking all four quarterbacks, including two-time reigning CFL most outstanding player Zach Collaros. It’s unclear how much action Collaros will see under centre, but the Bombers are also bringing the entire starting offensive line — including tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick, guards Patrick Neufeld and Geoff Gray, as well as centre Chris Kolankowski — so, there’s certainly enough protection in front of him if he does get the chance to play.
Collaros has yet to participate in a preseason game since joining the Bombers late in the 2019 season. No. 2 QB Dru Brown, along with rookies Josh Jones and Tyrrell Pigrome, are expected to get a majority of the action.
“I’m not sure of the rep distribution yet,” O’Shea said. “We’ll figure it out. They’re still putting together the final touches on the game plan. In the past, Zach hasn’t really needed a lot of reps.”
There is also a handful of veterans who have been left at home.
The list includes, on offence, running backs Brady Oliveira and Greg McCrae; fullbacks Mike Miller and Konner Burtenshaw; receivers Janarion Grant and Dalton Schoen. On defence, defensive backs Brandon Alexander, Winston Rose, Desmond Lawrence and Nick Hallett; linebackers Adam Bighill, Jesse Briggs and Shayne Gauthier; and defensive linemen Jackson Jeffcoat, Jake Thomas and Cam Lawson are all out.
As for the kicking competition, Chandler Staton will be the lone place kicker to make the trip, along with a pair of punters in globals Jamieson Sheahan and Karl Schmitz. Veterans Sergio Castillo and Marc Liegghio will stay back in Winnipeg.
The Bombers coach added while making plays is certainly valuable, being sound in other areas to allow for those plays to happen is just as important.
“Football’s a great sport. You’ve got 11 other guys around you, and you can do your job all the time and still not end up on the stat sheet,” O’Shea said. “Defensively, you should, because it’s all about hustle and if you do it all right and the ball didn’t come your way, go find the ball. Offensively, it’s a little different. For skill-position guys, you might do it all right and then not get a catch.”
Given how many players have returned from last season, there’s seemingly no real starting roles up for grabs. That’s not to say it’s impossible — an injury or a stellar performance could lead to just that — but many hopefuls will be fighting to provide depth and roles on special teams.
Among all the positional battles, perhaps the most intriguing is at receiver — a position at which the Bombers are stacked, with a group of pass-catchers as good as any in the CFL, there’s a name that will catch a lot of attention come kickoff.
Carlton Agudosi is a man on a mission this year after a stellar debut with the Bombers in 2022, followed by a disappointing end to the season.
Agudosi impressed in his first game with Winnipeg, reeling in six passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-19 Week 6 home win over the Calgary Stampeders. The following week the 29-year-old New Jersey native injured his ankle against Edmonton and was done for the year.
“Having only played in two games, in my mind I’m still a rookie,” said Agudosi, who first signed with the Bombers in 2021, spending the year on the practice roster. “With game reps, I’m trying to, like everyone here, build trust with the coaching staff and, as a receiver, with the quarterback. I want them to know that when the lights turn on, this guy knows what he’s doing and can be depended on.”
The Bombers finished the 2022 preseason with a 1-1 record, including falling to the Elks in the first bout. Edmonton will be playing their second and final exhibition game against Winnipeg, with a roster filled with veterans, including starting quarterback Taylor Cornelius.
The game won’t have any consequences in the standings, but that doesn’t mean the Bombers aren’t looking to start off with a win. Evaluation is certainly the priority but going through film after a win is a lot more enjoyable than a loss.
“We all want to win,” said O’Shea. “Winning feels better than losing.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.