The Blue Bombers are in the midst of their worst losing streak in three seasons but, at the very least, they will be able to depend on Jermarcus Hardrick's rock-solid play when they try to snap that streak Friday night.
The 28-year-old right tackle, a fixture on Winnipeg's offensive line with 43 starts since 2016, returns to the lineup after missing three games because of an injury to his left knee, for a last-place showdown with the Montreal Alouettes at Investors Group Field.
"It feels great. It feels right back like I went to my grandmother's house and see all my cousins that I haven't seen," said Hardrick, following Thursday's walk-through at IGF. "When I get home, my kids, the first thing they say is, 'How's big Stan, how's Goose, how's Patty, how's Sukh?' It's just a big family, man.
"I never missed a game in college, never missed a game in high school," said Hardrick. "It was rough."
Hardrick's enthusiasm also speaks to getting the Bombers O-line back in sync, where Hardrick will be flanked at right guard by Sukh Chungh while Patrick Neufeld returns to his former spot at left guard, with Stanley Bryant at left tackle and Matthias Goossen at centre.
That unit has had a big effect on Andrew Harris' season. Harris, the CFL's second-leading rusher with 984 yards, managed only 21 yards on 10 carries in Week 13. Hardrick found it difficult to watch the Bombers slide to their fourth consecutive loss, but he still found a way to get in a workout as he encouraged the IGF crowd with his wild, towel-waving antics on the sideline.
"The way he runs around in practice and drags people along with him — he’s always moving at practice, he’s always down field," said Winnipeg head coach Mike O'Shea. "He’s always running around and he’s always bringing not just offensive players with him but defenders too, challenging them to beat him wherever he’s going on that particular play.
"That’s something that I don’t think, expect for our core, die-hard fans that show up to practice all the time, I don’t think people would recognize that but he really gets practice moving."
Hardrick is integral to the unit for a few reasons.
"His vocal and emotional leadership on the field," said Neufeld. "And it's hard to replace experience. He's had so much time out there, and he and Sukh have such a close connection in the way they do things."
On Friday, Winnipeg will face a much improved defence, one that was exposed bare in a 56-10 shellacking of the Alouettes in Montreal Week 2.
Montreal's starting front four will have only one holdover — Woody Baron — from Week 2. The return of veteran defensive end John Bowman has helped to transform the Als, who installed a new defensive co-ordinator, Rich Stubler, at the start of 2018.
"Montreal provides something entirely new — defence that's playing really well. I think they've got close to 10 sacks in the last two or three games. We're going to have to lay really physical and make sure we execute.
"It was just a matter of time before they grasped what (Stubler) wanted. It's starting to show."
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Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.