New faces to appear on Friday for Big Blue
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The CFL season has a lot of firsts over the course of its 27-week calendar. The Bombers will have three more tonight at IG Field.
Chris Kolankowski will make his first start as a professional, filling in at centre for Michael Couture, who injured his arm against the Ottawa Redblacks in Week 2.
It’s a chance the 30-year-old has patiently waited for since being drafted by the Toronto Argonauts in 2016. To him, the opportunity is straightforward: it’s time to put up.
“A lot of anticipation for the moment,” he told the Free Press after the Bombers’ walkthrough on Thursday afternoon at IGF. “Obviously anyone in the CFL is waiting for the first start to try and set the tone.”
While Kolankowski expressed his excitement for the opportunity, the former sixth lineman said his preparation has been “business as usual” with a slight twist.
“(As the) sixth man, you’re always ready to go no matter what; you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “So keep the same routine, focus is a little different (as far as) what you’re focusing on in the playbook. Obviously I’m not worried about other positions so just narrowing the focus a bit.”
Kolankowski said fellow veterans Jermarcus Hardrick and Patrick Neufeld have shed some words of encouragement on their new centre during the lead-up to tonight’s tilt against the Tiger-Cats.
“(They’re) just saying ‘play your game.’ They believe in me, they trust me, and to just treat it like any other game. Just have fun out there, enjoy it and play physical with the boys.”
Coach Mike O’Shea hasn’t wavered in his confidence in Kolankowski this week. And on the eve of a rematch against the team he’s seen in consecutive Grey Cups, that didn’t change.
“He’s a smart guy and we believe he’s going to go in there and give us a chance to win a football game,” he said.
Kolankowski said his fiancée’s family will be in attendance, along with two of his cousins.
Demerio Houston will also have his wife and daughter in attendance for one of the biggest opportunities of his professional career.
The second-year Southern University product will make his first start of the season, replacing Winston Rose at cornerback while he recovers from a foot injury.
“It’s a blessing,” he told reporters Thursday afternoon. “It’s what I worked for during (last) season and during the off-season. To have a start is another blessing and I’m going to take the opportunity.”
Houston, 25, typically assumes the role of halfback but has worked closely all week with Rose to get up to speed.
“My coaches and teammates have prepared me, and a lot of film study. I’m prepared for the matchup,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s football. Like a kid, I’m always going to have butterflies, but I’m definitely excited.”
O’Shea said the difference between cornerback and halfback can be dramatic, depending on the play called, but that his coaching staff ensures each player is familiar with multiple positions during training camp.
“Our guys are cross-trained all the time, side to side positions, so they see different pictures and see the game in a different way. (Defensive co-ordinator) Richie (Hall) does a great job of making sure guys have all sorts of different books on how they see the game.”
Houston, praised by his coach for the progress he’s made since his rookie year, surely won’t take his first career start with his family in attendance for granted, as the moment was nearly stripped away from them last August.
Houston’s then-12-year-old daughter took a stray bullet to her thigh while in their Charlotte, N.C., home one Monday evening.
Houston reportedly considered giving up the game to spend time back home but was dissuaded by his wife Ashley.
He said his daughter, Hi’Lynn, is healthy now, back playing sports and in school.
“She’s doing fine. Me and my wife got all the love and counselling and they’re back on a better track.”
Thiadric Hansen arrived in Winnipeg at 1 a.m. Monday and will be back in his role within Big Blue’s pass-rush rotation tonight.
The global standout donned a big smile following Thursday’s walkthrough.
“It’s great. It’s like (2019), my first game,” he said. “I’m excited, can’t wait, that’s what (I’ve been) waiting for the whole offseason, to be back on the field. I’m ready.”
Hansen admitted after Monday’s practise that he was not in football shape, but told reporters he felt “way better” after Tuesday’s session.
“(I) felt like I had some wind. Feeling like young me again,” he said while laughing.
The 29-year-old has put in overtime all week at the team’s facilities to get his conditioning back up to par while getting treatment so that he will be as fresh as possible for his first game of the season.
Now he boasts the same confidence that has helped him develop into a productive pass-rusher and special teams ace.
“The best thing is to take it straight out, head-on. I know what I’m capable of doing.”
O’Shea took a moment to gush about his third-year defensive end after Thursday’s walkthrough.
“His production per play is very high. At that position, it takes a lot of energy […] so having a good rotation so guys stay fresh is best. When you get a guy like ‘T’ and they produce like they can, it’s obviously quite beneficial.”
O’Shea couldn’t disclose what kind of workload Hansen will shoulder in his first game of the year.
“The coaches believe these guys are ready,” he said.
“They don’t tell them much. Pretty much ‘do you have any questions?’ and ‘go out and have some fun.’”
The Bombers will look to improve to 3-0 this week, in what is expected to be a ‘white out’ at IGF.
Updated on Friday, June 24, 2022 11:15 AM CDT: Removes duplicate Twitter handle
Updated on Friday, June 24, 2022 12:05 PM CDT: Fixes spelling of names