November 11, 2019

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First CFL start at linebacker no big deal for Briggs

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker Jesse Briggs runs through drills in the rain during a practice at IG Field on Tuesday.</p>

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker Jesse Briggs runs through drills in the rain during a practice at IG Field on Tuesday.

Jesse Briggs made his first start as a pro Friday. It was no big deal. Honest.

The calm, quiet demeanor he exhibited prior to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Week 4 matchup with the Ottawa Redblacks was pretty typical of Briggs. But it had an almost extraterrestrial feel to it when you came to realize it was his first starting assignment after 89 games as a backup linebacker and a special-teams player since entering the CFL in 2014.

"He’s a pretty even-keeled guy," said cornerback Chandler Fenner, a teammate since the start of 2018. "He’s a little bit more like Spock in that way, you don’t really see any change of emotion. But I think on the inside he was excited."

Briggs, a 29-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., seemed fairly unimpressed with the attention after Tuesday’s practice at IG Field, where once again he worked with the No. 1 defence as the weak-side linebacker.

Last week, a hamstring injury suffered by all-star middle linebacker Adam Bighill required a personnel shuffle: Kyrie Wilson moved from the weak side to Bighill’s regular spot in the middle and Briggs took over Wilson’s old job.

Winnipeg’s defence didn’t skip a beat without Bighill in a 29-14 win over the Redblacks. Briggs registered two tackles in Ottawa and with Bighill still not practising Tuesday, Briggs’ starting assignment may be safe for another week when the Blue Bombers host the Toronto Argonauts on Friday night.

"I’ve been around the block for six years," said Briggs. "You put the starting label on and it changes a lot from an outside perspective but it didn’t really change much for me. I was exciting to be in there for a whole game and to play a lot more than I’m used to, but it was really business as usual."

That business-like approach has earned Briggs respect among the other players in the Blue Bombers dressing room. Briggs’ starting job was on top of his regular duties on all four special-teams units, not to mention his work as a backup linebacker through the years. In 90 games, Briggs has 20 defensive tackles and 57 special-teams tackles.

"There was no concern by any of us really because we know how hard he works," said Fenner.

"Everybody knows he’s a warrior on our team. He came in and answered the call and played special teams. That’s pretty impressive."

Briggs chalks his success up to experience.

"Every year you see more, you learn more about football," said Briggs. "You get more confident, the game slows down. I’m sure earlier in my career I would’ve been a lot more nervous than I was and if you put me in there as a rookie in 2014, I would’ve probably been more nervous than I was the other night."

The Blue Bombers appeared to have a good handle on Briggs’ potential, trading two third-round picks in order to move up and select him in the second round, 17th overall.

At McGill University, head coach Clint Uttley had been quick to tab him as a future pro, elite at the U Sports level.

"He’s probably the second-best linebacker I’ve ever coached — behind Shea Emry," said Uttley. "I know Shea was a starter (in the CFL) for an extended period of time but Jesse was just as athletic."

The wiry Briggs, a 6-1, 211-pounder, may have been a victim of his own success as a reliable special-teamer. He probably would have been employed as a spot starter years ago if not for his essential role on special teams.

"Jesse is like one of those journeyman guys that just grinds," said Glen Young, who coaches Winnipeg’s defensive linemen and linebackers. "He’s a great athlete, knows what he’s doing and takes pride in what he does. At the end of the day, he’s patient enough to endure the journey, because it’s a tough journey."

He’s also been entrusted with key responsibilities when special-teams co-ordinator Paul Boudreau reaches into his bag of trick plays. Briggs has taken a direct snap on the punt cover team and run for first downs three times in four attempts during his career.

"The problem is Jesse is so valuable on special teams," added Young. "So it’s tough. As big of a deal special teams is in this league... when you’ve got a guy like that for the same reason, being trustworthy, that’s the guy you want out there because you know you’re going to have a chance to win every time he’s on the field."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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