After a week of gruelling practices, which had been overshadowed by a brief work stoppage and the potential of a second player strike, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are finally ready to get back in front of the hometown crowd.
With a new collective bargaining agreement ratified late Thursday, the final obstacle has been cleared, making way for Friday?s preseason game against the visiting Edmonton Elks at IG Field. And after getting through a four-day strike to begin training camp, resulting in the postponement of Monday?s exhibition game in Regina against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, to be able to finally play a game is a welcomed change of pace.
"That’s always exciting, especially at IG Field," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said about the return to game action. "Our fans are fantastic, so having them in the stadium, it’s nice for our young players, too, to be able to sense their passion very early on."
It’s been three years, dating back to the 2019 campaign, that the CFL has had a preseason schedule. The 2020 season was cancelled owing to COVID-19, and with a delayed and shortened 2021 schedule, again owing to the coronavirus, the CFL had to wipe out exhibition games in order to fit in a 14-game regular season.
Preseason matches don’t just offer some early excitement leading up to the games that matter in the standings, they’re also extremely valuable to coaches when it comes to evaluating players. The Bombers will have a blend of veteran and rookie players in the lineup, with the team’s newcomers likely to earn a majority of snaps.
"You can only go so hard in practice, in many situations. It’s also a great time for these young guys to figure out what kind of shape they’re in, for them to be able to adjust between now and the first regular-season game. Because you believe you’re in shape and then you get out there and you realize it’s a different animal out there, when you’re going," O’Shea said.
"You certainly get a grade on their readiness, in terms of assignments. You’ll see who knows their stuff and who doesn’t fairly quickly and you’re dealing with that shorter clock and being out of breath, with somebody trying to make contact with you on every play. Let’s you know who really knows their assignment and who thinks they know their assignment. You get a better glimpse of the level of physicality that each player is willing to bring, and you get a better glimpse of their toughness they bring, for sure."
While there will be many moving pieces — preseason games have extended rosters, with the Bombers carrying nearly 80 guys — there are a few players that will not play. Some of the notable absences are receiver Greg Ellingson, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, linebacker Kyrie Wilson and special-teams guru Mike Miller.
Starting quarterback Zach Collaros will dress but won’t play a snap. He’s likely to get his reps next week against the Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium Tuesday night.
"First and foremost, it’s important to see what guys can do when the lights come on. Everyone is excited for the young guys," Collaros said. "I think for the guys that have played for a long time, and even the young guys, it’s just the whole process of the day. The warmup, the national anthem, getting in and out of the huddle, making sure we have the right special-teams guys on the field. There’s a lot of things that go into games. Just getting back into the rhythm of things is what I think is important for these coming games."
With Collaros sidelined, expect Dakota Prukop to earn the start behind centre. The other quarterbacks dressing includes Dru Brown and Joe Mancuso.
Defensive tackle Jake Thomas, the team’s longest tenured player, noted the preseason is also a bit unique this year, given all the rule changes in play. He said what will be of particular interest is the shifting of the hashmarks closer to the middle of the field.
"I think people don’t think it’s that big of a change but it’s a pretty big change," Thomas said. "The uprights have to be used a lot more…I don’t know if offensive linemen will be able to kick back as much, so it will just be interesting to see all that stuff play out."
Defensive end Willie Jefferson noted it will be nice to hit someone other than a teammate. But he’s most looking forward to see which of the new players will take advantage of the opportunity to impress and earn a roster spot.
"I can’t wait to see all my young guys play. Training camp was fun because we got the chance to mow some guys, show them some things, watch some film with them. Now it’s time for them to put all this stuff together, the drill work, the practice stuff, and go out there and perform," Jefferson said.
"I can’t wait to see the guys we have on offence. We’ve got some explosive guys, talented guys. Same as on the defensive side of the ball. I can’t wait to see them go out there and make some plays, bring some guys to the ground, give the fans something to cheer for. I can’t wait to see the fans, to see how excited they are gonna be for a pre-season game, since we didn’t have one last year. It’s gonna be fun."
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.