Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 21/6/2018 (586 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
MONTREAL — Losing your No. 1 quarterback in training camp to a long-term injury is typically a recipe for disaster in the CFL.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will be without their main man Matt Nichols again Friday, this time for a crucial Week 2 game here against the Alouettes, who have lost 12 straight contests dating back to last season.
Rookie pivot Chris Streveler will get his second consecutive start for Winnipeg. It will be up to the 23-year-old from the University of South Dakota to raise his game above and beyond his impressive debut last week in a 33-30 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos.
With Nichols out for at least another two weeks, the Bombers are hoping Streveler can be more than a placeholder, because opening the season 0-4 or 0-5 would quickly extinguish any legitimate post-season hopes.
Streveler has made a big impression with teammates, including veteran running back Andrew Harris.
"The biggest thing is his confidence and his understanding of the playbook," Harris said Thursday. "For any new player it’s always a learning curve... For him to get thrown into the fire right at the end of training camp and into a short week, to handle it the way he did in the conditions, honestly it reminded me a little like playing with Travis Lulay (in B.C.) when he came in. Just the overall confidence and trust in a guy new to the league.
"Usually, when a quarterback comes in that’s fresh or young, they’re stumbling on their words in the huddle. They know the play but they don’t really understand what everyone is doing. I truly believe Chris has taken the time to learn the playbook really well and understands what everyone is doing and what their role is."
The Bombers expect Nichols (right knee) to return no later than Week 6 against the defending Grey Cup champions from Toronto and need to stay relevant in the West Division playoff hunt by winning at least two of their next four games.
All four of those games (Montreal, Hamilton and B.C. twice) are against last season’s non-playoff teams, who were a combined 16-38 in 2017.
With that in mind, here are five storylines to watch for tonight:
1. WHAT CAN THE ROOKIE GUNSLINGER DO?
Former Winnipeg No. 1 Drew Willy is 31 but he remembers well how difficult it is for a young quarterback to get firmly established in the CFL. Streveler, signed less than two months ago, has vaulted up the depth chart with the absence of Nichols and the surprise retirement of Darian Durant.
"It’s absolutely impressive," Willy said of Streveler’s rapid rise. "First year out of college, to be in the pros and to get thrown into a starting job, especially when the game changes a little bit up here in Canada, that’s very impressive. They obviously saw something in him in the pre-season and in training camp. They obviously think he’s going to be pretty special."
Veteran defensive end Jamaal Westerman, another former Bomber, has heard the scouting reports.
"He’s a guy that can run a lot, right? But also he can do things from the pocket — I think he had (three) touchdowns last week, so he can do some good things from the pocket," said Westerman. "He’s also a guy who’s extremely fast, so as a rookie, you know he knows he can trust his body. We have to do a better job at (that)."
2. WILLY FACES OLD TEAM
Willy, who played two-plus seasons in Winnipeg from 2014 to 2016, starts for the first time against his former team. Is he a better QB than the man plagued by accuracy issues when he wore Blue and Gold?
Winnipeg cornerback Chris Randle is convinced he is.
"He’s experienced, right?" said Randle. "I feel like he’s grown over time. He’s seen every look possible, so when I see him on tape, he’s making his reads, he’s confident in his reads and he has a running game that helps him and allows him to have (isolation) routes. So what I see out of him is he’s confident in the decisions he’s making and he’s getting the ball out fast."
Willy isn’t holding any grudges, but he’s inspired to perform well against his former teammates.
"Not necessarily motivation, but obviously you want to prove you’re a high-level player in the league," he said. "I was traded away and, I get business moves and all that, but at the same time, you do want to prove that you can play at a top level and they did make a mistake."
Willy went 25-for-35 passing for 281 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a Week 1 loss to the B.C. Lions. He is familiar with his old team as they are with him and he sees no edge for either side tonight.
"I know (defensive co-ordinator) Richie (Hall) pretty well as well — you could see either way," said Willy. "They know me, I know them. I don’t think it’s a disadvantage at all. I’ve been through a lot with (head coach Mike O’Shea) and I always appreciated him. He’s one of the best guys in the CFL, just the way he goes about his business, the way he treats the players."
3. WESTERMAN VS. BRYANT
Veteran defensive end Westerman, who spent three productive seasons in Winnipeg, was signed as a free agent to help the sad-sack Als revive the franchise’s flagging fortunes.
He’ll go head-to-head with Bombers left tackle Stanley Bryant, the league’s top offensive lineman in 2017. Westerman prefers to make it an us-versus-them talking point rather than a personal battle between old friends.
"To me, it’s not a matchup between me and Stanley," said Westerman. "It’s a matchup between our defensive front and their offensive line. It’s not like they have Stanley and four guys that can’t play beside him… They’re a good group that kept the defensive lineman off their quarterback and play extremely hard. They have some nasty to them and we have to not only match that, but exceed that."
4. WILL BLUE D RISE TO THE CHALLENGE?
Much was made of the 408 passing yards Winnipeg surrendered in the loss to Edmonton as being reminiscent of 2017, but defensive co-ordinator Hall believes personnel changes have made the current group better.
He expects big things from middle linebacker Adam Bighill, who took two days off practice this week, but appears to be ready to go.
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"By the time he got here, he already knew the playbook," said Hall. "He was already up to date with where we’re at. It’s a matter now of getting the rust off. He hasn’t played football for a year. He was down there (with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints) but he wasn’t playing every down."
5. A TIME FOR MORE TRICKERY?
The Blue Bombers have a well-earned reputation for special-teams shenanigans which, notably, included a perfectly executed phantom punt-return touchdown by Maurice Leggett (Kevin Fogg gets high marks for play acting) in last year’s Banjo Bowl.
Paul Boudreau, entering his third season as Winnipeg’s special teams co-ordinator, grinned mischieviously earlier this week when asked about the potential for special-teams chicanery.
"I think it always helps if you show something unique, whether it’s last year or the year before and it’s part of what you’re kinda about," said Boudreau. "The other team has to prepare for it whether it happens or not. You kind of look at it like you may be taking away a couple of minutes of their focus on what they like to do and have to work on something that may or may not happen."
Winnipeg is off to a good start with more conventional stuff, namely Fogg’s 110-yard return TD off a missed field goal last Friday. Fogg is healthier than he was a year ago and he’s expected to be used as a punt and kickoff returner against the Als with Ryan Lankford out of the lineup.
Mike Sawatzky Sports Reporter
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Drew Willy is the 12th quarterback to start a game for the Alouettes since Canadian Football Hall of Famer Anthony Calvillo’s last game in 2013. Here’s the list:
Rakeem Cato (16 starts); Darian Durant (15); Jonathan Crompton (13); Kevin Glenn (12); Troy Smith (9); Josh Neiswander (5); Tanner Marsh (4); Vernon Adams Jr. (3); Drew Willy (3); Alex Brink (2); Brandon Bridge (1); Matthew Shiltz (1).