After two gruelling weeks of battling it out against their fellow teammates in training camp, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers open the pre-season schedule against the visiting Edmonton Eskimos at IG Field Friday night.
In what’s been the most competitive camp in years, for players, it will be a chance to separate oneself from the pack and prove they belong on a team many project should contend for the Grey Cup. For the coaches, it’s another opportunity to evaluate the talent they have in front of them, to determine who is for real once the bright lights are on and the stakes are at their highest.
"I hope for all these guys that what they’ve been showing us on a consistent level through practice is what they’re going to show us in the game – in fact, you hope that there’s an elevated level. The hope is that you see even greater things come game time," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said following walk-through Thursday. "You just want to put them in the best position to showcase their talents and to try and make the team."
With that in mind, here are five storylines to keep an eye on.
The Bombers are doing things a bit differently this season, opting to sit out No. 1 quarterback Matt Nichols and instead starting backup Chris Streveler.
Nichols has played the home pre-season game in each of the last two seasons, including last year, when he played the entire first quarter and two series in the second.
Part of the reason for Nichols sitting is because he’s trying a number of different approaches to prepare for this year; the other likely has to do with some inconsistency on the offensive line, but more on that in a moment.
Either way, it should provide a good opportunity for Streveler, who is coming off a strong rookie season in 2018, while also providing valuable reps for the other two pivots in camp – Bryan Bennett and Sean McGuire – in what should be an interesting battle for No. 3 on the depth chart.
It’s been well documented the hits the Bombers O-line suffered in the offseason, with the departures of Matthias Goossen (retirement) and Sukh Chungh (free agency). Since then, Manase Foketi, who was in line to become the regular starter at right guard for Chungh after years of patiently waiting, hasn’t showed up to camp and left guard Patrick Neufeld and right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick are both out with injuries.
That leaves only left tackle Stanley Bryant as the lone starter from last season left to play in Friday’s game. And even though Bryant has been the CFL’s most outstanding lineman the past two years, he won’t be enough to carry what will be a mostly inexperienced front-five.
Still, the expectation of a strong and physical group remains the same.
"We’re all expected to bring the physicality aspect of it. We’ve showed the tape from the past couple of years to the guys and it’s an expectation that we’re going to uphold that in these preseason games," Bombers centre Michael Couture said. "It’s just going to be getting on the same page. The communication is going to be key."
Couture, the front-runner to take over for Goossen, will start against the Eskimos, while Cody Speller and Tui Eli will also take reps there. Winnipeg native Geoff Gray, who the Bombers drafted eighth overall in 2017, and Drew Desjarlais, the Bombers first-round pick (4th overall) this year, will start at right and left guard, respectively. Delroy Baker Jr. and Jamar McGloster, both of whom have seen reps with the first-team offence in recent days, will cover for Hardrick at right tackle.
Of all the talented newcomers this year, none have been more impressive than the new crop of receivers. Finding that unknown breakout American receiver has been a difficult exercise for the Bombers scouting staff; unlike many other teams around the league, it’s been years since Winnipeg been able to unearth a game-breaking talent.
This might be the year the Bombers do just that. Names that have jumped out at camp include Rasheed Bailey, Kenny Lawler, and Matt Hazel, while others, such as Tim Wilson, Kenny Walker and Lucky Whitehead has also shown flashes.
But sneaking behind a defence at practice and finding open space during a game, against players also fighting for a job, are two very different things. The ability to make a big play or have a strong game in the preseason is likely what it will take in order to stand out in a crowded crew of receivers.
"That’s what a lot of people have been saying around here, that this one of the best groups of receivers they’ve seen come into training camp. Some hard decisions are going to have to be made but that’s part of the game," said Lawler, who will wear No. 89 on offence. "I plan to make the most of it. You’re going to see my number making plays and it’s going to be a hell of a game."
The Bombers defence will have much more stability than the offence, with nearly all the team’s standout players set to participate. Adam Bighill will take his usual spot at middle linebacker, tasked with calling the plays for a front-six that will also include first-year Bomber, and prized free agent, Willie Jefferson.
But it’s Winnipeg’s last line of protection that will look a lot different than usual; much like the O-line, the secondary is also in a transition phase, with new faces replacing old ones at a number of positions. No longer do familiar veterans run this group, with corner Chris Randle (signed in Ottawa) and safety Taylor Loffler (Montreal) finding new homes over the winter.
Indeed, it’s a new-look secondary now, led by halfbacks Brandon Alexander and Marcus Sayles, and complimented by veterans, such as safeties Jeff Hecht and Derek Jones, eager to earn a starting role. Then there are the rookies – Malik Boynton and Amari Coleman, to name a couple – that will try to prove they belong, too.
For Hecht, the preseason is the first real chance to test out the chemistry of the group, in hopes of finding who goes where and who can go where in case of injuries, and building that trust between the group.
"The secondary is a continuity-based position; you don’t always play the six best players, you play the six that play the best together. The bullets are live now, so the game is a lot faster and the consequences and the rewards are much greater," he said. "As for the playbook, the meat and potatoes of it is in, we’re just working on the garnish now."
Of all the eye-popping plays that have occurred in camp, there is one that stands alone. Earlier this week, Lucky Whitehead retrieved a punt and, after cutting left, he pivoted right and sprinted for the sidelines, leaving a number of would-be tacklers in his dust.
Yes, Whitehead is that fast. He’s also looking for a new home. Had he not run into a spree of legal issues while in the NFL, he’d likely still be there.
Now, he’s hoping to resurrect his career, while the Bombers hope he can breathe new life into the return game.
"I definitely want to be a playmaker back there, and always be able to switch the field, change the momentum. Whether we’re up or down, specials teams is a momentum-changer, always," Whitehead said. "With my speed, I’m definitely going to use it to my advantage every chance I get and I’m always going to try and make that big play."
Whitehead isn’t alone in fighting for a notable role in the return game. There will be other bodies looking to make a mark, including Charles Nelson and Mike Jones. Nelson was with the Bombers last year and his speed is undeniable. As is the case at receiver, it will be who shines this preseason that will ultimately win the job.
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.