With training camp officially in the rear-view mirror and the pre-season schedule in the books, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' pursuit for a Grey Cup officially begins in earnest Thursday night. They welcome their opponent, the Edmonton Eskimos, who will host the championship game in late November, to town in what will be the official kickoff of the 2018 CFL regular season.
The Bombers have faced a few bumps in their journey already, including the loss of starting quarterback Matt Nichols, who is expected to miss the four to six weeks with a knee injury. But after acquiring a number of key pieces over the off-season, excitement for the start of a new season hasn’t dissipated around these parts.
Whether those good feelings will continue by the weekend will likely rely on how well rookie quarterback Chris Streveler fares at the controls of the Bombers' offence. Meanwhile, Edmonton is also banged up, with their injuries on the defensive side of the ball. It’s safe to say both teams will be eager to earn a victory, not only to ease their minds from the carnage they’ve already endured but also to get an early edge on what’s expected to be another tough race in the West Division.
With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on during the game.
At this time last year, Streveler was preparing for his second season at the University of South Dakota. It was a season in which he set a number of school records for the Coyotes. On Thursday, just months after losing 54-42 to Sam Houston State in the second round of the FSC playoffs — and after finishing with an FSC record 571 total yards (520 passing, 51 rushing) and six touchdowns — the 23-year-old from Crystal Lake, Ill., will make his professional debut.
Streveler will be the first player since CFL Hall of Famer Anthony Calvillo to start a CFL game in Week 1 as a rookie straight out of college. Calvillo did it as a member of the Las Vegas Posse in 1994
"I was hoping out of college that I would have an opportunity to play professionally somewhere, whether that be NFL or CFL. I got a great opportunity to come in here during camp and get a chance to compete for a position, and that’s all I can ask for and that’s all I wanted," Streveler said Wednesday, when asked if he could have imagined this day coming so soon.
Fans have witnessed two sides of Streveler through the pre-season. Against Edmonton, he went 10-for-10 passing for 140 yards and one touchdown, with his only blemish being a fumble at the end of what would have been a 20-yard run. Streveler struggled a week later in a loss to the B.C. Lions, ending the night 3-for-9 passing for 44 yards, a touchdown and an interception for a touchdown.
While having a quarterback who has seen limited action might seem like a difficult challenge for the Bombers to overcome, it also poses an obstacle for Edmonton.
"After you get six or seven games on a guy you can kind of tell some things," said Eskimos head coach Jason Maas. "But first start and you’ve seen him play a limited amount of reps in two pre-season games? You don’t know what to expect."
For those curious: Calvillo ended his debut 12-for-28 passing for 170 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Sacramento. Vegas ended the year last in the West with a record of 5-13.
For those concerned all might be lost with Nichols out of the lineup, it’s hard to consider a better setting for Streveler to make his first start.
While Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea insisted earlier this week the offence wouldn’t limit the playbook under their new starter, you can be sure offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice has worked tirelessly to come up with a game plan that plays to Streveler’s strengths.
Streveler will also be protected by arguably the league’s best offensive line, which should give him enough time to dissect the various routes of his receivers. Streveler won the job over No. 2 Alex Ross mainly because he can get through his reads quickly, something Nichols credits as his greatest asset and why he’s developed into one of the CFL’s top gunslingers.
"I think it’s just a matter of staying within myself and knowing that there are 11 other guys out there to rely on," Streveler said. "I know a lot of emphasis gets put on the quarterback position but there’s a lot of veteran guys on this team that have been helping me out throughout the week."
Consider this: the five starting receivers have 34 years of CFL experience between them, and all of them are confident Streveler can lead the offence.
"It’s about going in there and showing you can be under those lights when it’s the real deal," said Bombers receiver Adarius Bowman said. "I’m 100 per cent confident in him."
When veteran Eskimos linebacker J.C. Sherritt was asked earlier this week about the advantage of playing a green quarterback, he shifted the attention to another part of the Bombers' offence. Though Sherritt acknowledged the uncertainty that comes with playing an unknown opponent under centre, the real key to stopping Winnipeg, he said, will be containing running back Andrew Harris.
Harris, coming off a season in which he led the CFL in rushing (1,035 yards) and receptions (105), has proven to be the ultimate threat for opposing defences. He’s also arguably the greatest safety net for any quarterback, especially a new one, and therefore figures to play an even bigger role in the offence with Nichols out.
"We have a great competition between the both of us. We’ve had it for eight years now, since I’ve been in the league. I think we bring the best out in each other," Sherritt, who missed all of last year with an Achilles injury, said about himself and Harris. "It seems every game I find a way to tag him and not two or three plays later he finds a way to make me miss."
Harris has set high goals for himself once again, and his belief is he can hit that 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving mark that eluded him last year (he had 857 receiving yards in 2017). But he also knows other teams design their defensive schemes around him and he’s not expecting — or at least not hinting — at earning any extra work with Nichols out.
"I guess I’ll be a decoy," quipped Harris. "The game goes as it goes, we have our game plan and a lot of weapons. If they’re focused on me then that means other guys will make plays for us."
There are few in the CFL who carry the kind of pedigree of Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly, who enters this season following a 2017 campaign where he was named the league’s most outstanding player, pacing the CFL in passing yards (5,830) and touchdowns (30).
At 33 years old, he’s also still willing to put his body on the line, rushing 97 times for 390 yards for a whopping 12 touchdowns last year. It’s no secret if you want to beat the Eskimos you have to go through Reilly.
"He’s tough as balls, or tough as nails, whatever you want to call it," said Edmonton receiver Derel Walker. "Having a guy like Mike Reilly at quarterback, any moment he can make that great play, either with his legs or with the ball."
It’s the kind of challenge the Bombers' revamped defence — a unit that includes key free agent signings in linebackers Adam Bighill and Chandler Fenner, a solid defensive line and a seemingly much-improved secondary — have been asking for. Veteran corner Chris Randle said after the pre-season game against Edmonton, following what was a dominant display by the defence, that the defence wanted to be relied on to win no matter how well the offence was playing.
With Nichols out, the defence will not only get their wish but will be leaned on heavily to deliver.
"It’s the opportunity to go out there and showcase what you put into here, what you talked about, what we practised, what we are trying to execute and get accomplished around here," he said. "Everyone is excited. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it."
Edmonton was ravaged with injuries last year, to the tune of $1.1 million being spent on injured player salaries. In total, the Eskimos racked up 348 man-games lost, which was the most of any team by a large margin.
You would think they had used up all their bad luck on the injury front. But heading into Thursday, three starters, all of whom play in the secondary, are out of the lineup, including Johnny Adams and Arjen Colquhoun. All-star DB Aaron Grymes has also been ruled out as he’s headed home to take care of a personal matter.
That leaves one player — safety Neil King — as the only player in the secondary with notable CFL experience, now in his seventh year. Maurice McKnight and Hunter Monshardik are both entering their first league start, while Nick Taylor will make his debut with the Eskimos at field halfback after doing spot duty in Ottawa the previous two years. Canadian Jordan Hoover, in his second year in Edmonton, will control the boundary corner.
"It is a dream opportunity (for these guys). It could change your entire career," said Sherritt. "They should just come out and let it fly and we’ll have their backs the whole way through.
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.
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Updated on Wednesday, June 13, 2018 at 10:38 PM CDT: fixes typo