The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have had few issues this season. But despite having a nearly flawless 9-1 record and being just one victory away from clinching the West Division with four games remaining in the regular season, there are some areas that have been far from perfect.
After years of having arguably the CFL's best in Justin Medlock, the Bombers this season have turned into a revolving door for kickers. With the signing of Sergio Castillo on Tuesday, though, Winnipeg might have finally found their foot, and a solution to a problem that's been ongoing for months even while the Bombers continue to rack up wins.
"I know Sergio is a very good kicker. We've had him here before. I know he's a fit," Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea said following Tuesday's workout. "And last time he stepped on a CFL field, he was kicking at a 90-plus per cent, made some 50 (yard kicks). So, yeah, it's good to have and we'll sort it out as we go along."
The sorting out part in O'Shea's comment refers to what the Bombers will do with their current kicker, Ali Mourtada. Mourtada was brought in midway through September to fix a kicking issue neither veteran Tyler Crapigna, nor rookie Marc Liegghio could figure out. Crapigna is still technically with the team, designated to the six-game injured list with a hamstring injury, but won't likely be on the roster by season's end and Liegghio has been limited to punt duty.
Given the opportunity to earn a full-time job, Mourtada has been inconsistent over four games with the Blue and Gold. He was four-for-10 heading into last week's road win over the Edmonton Elks, but regained some confidence in a 26-16 win, connecting on four-of-five field goals and hitting both of his single-point converts.
Still, Mourtada had his limitations, including range, with O'Shea refusing to trot him out for attempts at 49 and 54 yards. Mourtada connected from 37, 27, 43 and 24 yards, respectively, last week against the Elks but his longest successful field-goal attempt in the three games prior was from 29 yards.
"It was nice to see it come together," Mourtada said. "Watch the film, learn from it and then put it behind me and go at it this week to make sure I'm ready to go."
Mourtada will get another opportunity to prove his worth this week when the Bombers host the B.C. Lions Saturday at IG Field. Castillo won't be available until next week, once he's arrived and gone through a short isolation period.
It's unclear what, if anything, he can do to supplant Castillo, who will likely, barring an unfortunate injury, be called upon to take over once the Bombers return from their bye week to take on the visiting Montreal Alouettes Nov. 6.
Despite being a bit of a lame duck, Mourtada is choosing not to concern himself with the arrival of some stiff competition. He's got a job to do this week, and that's his focus.
"Just kind of head down, just do what I got to do, right?" Mourtada said.
"It's been years of just development, whether it's reading books, you kind of just develop this state of mind that you realize what you can control and you focus in on that. Because you start worrying about what other people are doing, or what's being said, all that sort of stuff that really takes your focus away, but I've found a way of thinking of where I just focus in on what I got to do and execute that every single day."
The Bombers are welcoming back a familiar foot in Castillo, who was acquired in a trade with the Lions that saw a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2022 CFL Draft go the other way. Castillo started his CFL career in Winnipeg, inking a deal in 2015 before being relegated to the practice roster after the team signed Medlock ahead of the 2016 campaign.
The 30-year-old eventually landed in Ottawa, playing two games for the Redblacks before joining the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2017. He played in 14 games for Hamilton before suffering a season-ending knee injury following a missed field-goal when he attempted to turn up field and join the rest of the would-be tacklers on his team.
He last played for the Lions, in 2019, where he went 41-of-45 on field-goal attempts and was named a CFL all-star. Castillo then opted out of his contract in 2020 to pursue NFL opportunities, which included a couple games with the New York Jets.
He can also handle kickoff and punt duties, but O'Shea wasn't ready to lay bare his plans just yet.
"Ali kicked, was four-for-five and made his extra points and straightened himself out. So, we'll see," O'Shea said. "We've got different options now and we'll make the best decisions as we go forward, when those decisions need to be made."
ONE MORE LEG: The Bombers also signed Canadian kicker Gabriel Ferraro, who last played with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2019. Ferraro was at practice Tuesday, but it's unsure where exactly he fits into the roster with the addition of Castillo.
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.