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This article was published 31/5/2018 (797 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If the CFL pre-season is anything, it certainly isn’t perfect.
But as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers prepare to open their exhibition schedule with a visit from the Edmonton Eskimos Friday night at Investors Group Field, the standard put forth by head coach Mike O’Shea was exactly that: perfection from all.
"The reality is they’re not going to play the perfect game and nobody does, even after 18 weeks guys don’t play perfect games," O’Shea said following the Bombers walkthrough practice Thursday, which marked Day 12 of training camp. "You know it’s not going to happen but my expectation is these guys are prepared and they have the ability…so my expectation is they’re all going to play perfect games."
If all goes perfectly, and everyone is able to defy the odds and have the flawless game O’Shea expects, then the questions that have sprouted throughout the first 12 days of camp will remain unanswered. But it’s a safe bet that won’t happen, and by the time the final whistle blows on Friday, there should be some more clarity on what the roster might look like when the Eskimos return here June 14 for the start of the regular season.
With that in mind, here are five storylines to keep an eye on.
It’s still unclear just how long Matt Nichols is expected to play against an Eskimos defence that will be without a number of starters. The belief is he will start the game, but if history has shown anything Nichols likely won’t last beyond the first half, perhaps even sooner.
While Nichols is anxious to see just how much his hard work in the offseason has paid off, this is the perfect time for the coaching staff to see what they’ve got behind him. Leading the crew is Alex Ross, 25, who spent last season with the B.C. Lions and whose 12 passing attempts – and five completions – makes him the most experienced quarterback of the four vying the No. 2 job.
The other challengers include Chris Streveler, 23, fresh off a standout career with the University of South Dakota; Zach Mahoney, who wrapped up his collegiate career at Syracuse; and Bryan Bennett, who spent all of 2016 on the Bombers practice roster but has yet to practice as he continues to nurse an upper-body injury.
Simply put, with Nichols expected to lead this team all season, there is no better time or opportunity for the others to gain some trust, and prove that they're guy in the event something drastic happens.
The Bombers were among the best offences statistically in 2017, with a balanced attack through the air and on the ground being a major reason for why they finished the year 12-6. Winnipeg also has one of the most creative coordinators in the CFL, in Paul LaPolice, who has a knack for getting the most of his players.
Now consider the Bombers not only have all the pieces that made them successful last season returning this year – receivers Weston Dressler and Darvin Adams; running back Andrew Harris; and the entire offensive line that started in the 2017 playoffs – but were also active in free agency – adding receivers Adarius Bowman and Nic Demski – the thought is the Bombers are primed to be even better.
"To practice everything, being in the flow of it, it’s super exciting," said Demski. "I love this playbook."
Don’t expect to see the kind of trick plays the Bombers have come to be known for under LaPolice, as only a portion of the playbook will be used on this night. But with the potential the Bombers have on offence this season, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have their foot on the gas right from the starting line.
With how many veterans the Bombers have on the roster, the number of heated positional battles in camp has somewhat dwindled this year. One could suppose, and O’Shea certainly has, that all spots are up for grabs, but there are a couple areas that seem less set than others.
One of those areas is at receiver, where Winnipeg plans to start two Canadians. Demski, who grew up in Winnipeg, will play in the slot, with one of either Drew Wolitarsky or Rashaun Simonise occupying the wide-receiver position furthest away from the quarterback.
Wolitarsky, who was plucked by the Bombers in last year’s supplemental draft, has an edge over Simonise, the No. 12 overall pick in May.
But as much as one more year of experience has benefitted Wolitarksy in the early stages of camp, Simonise, at 6-4 and 202 pounds, has been impossible to ignore. When Wolitarsky missed five days with an injury, it was Simonise who was working with the No. 1 offence and he didn’t look at all out of place.
Given just how close the battle appears to be, a breakout game from either one could very well be enough to decide a clear favourite.
Until Adam Bighill came along, signed to a one-year deal earlier this month after his release from the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, the competition for middle linebacker was seemingly wide open. That door has been firmly shut with his addition, as Bighill has taken over the middle of the defence ever since his arrival last week.
The focus now shifts to how quickly he can take command of his new teammates, as the middle linebacker position is as much about reading opposing defences and delivering that information to the people around him as it is administering bone-crushing hits. There is a lot of hype around the 29-year-old from Montensano, Wash., and deservedly so. He’s a four-time CFL all-star and was the league’s most outstanding defensive player in 2015. But fans are anxious to see what they’ve got and a strong first impression will only build on his allure.
For those who still believe in having a healthy competition, expect the trio of Kyrie Wilson, Jevaris Jones and Quentin Gause to also get a look at middle linebacker.
When asked whether there might be any concern with kicker Justin Medlock following a season where he didn’t display his usual greatness, Dressler barely felt a point in mustering up the energy to laugh, let alone answer.
"No," he said, his eyes rolling to the back of his head. "Not at all."
Indeed, concern is not something Dressler or anyone else on the Bombers is feeling about their veteran kicker. But for Medlock, despite a 2017 season that saw him score more points (226) on more field goals (56) than any other kicker in the league, he still considered it a sub-par year. In fact, he disliked his season so much that he thought about it all offseason, vowing to come back stronger and return to the player he was the year before – when he was awarded the CFL’s most outstanding special teams player following a record-breaking 2016.
Considering Medlock still had a good year – he also kicked three game-winning field goals and posted an 80 per cent success rate (56 for 70) – it’s almost scary to think he’s even more motivated this year. And with the West Division once again set to be a tough race from start to finish, a solid performance from Medlock could be the difference in most games.
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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