January 23, 2020

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Knee injury takes Nichols off field 4-6 weeks, so battle of the backups now a fight for No. 1

This article was published 7/6/2018 (595 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At first blush, this would appear to be a potential disaster in the making. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, expected to be Grey Cup contenders this season, will be without their most important player for at least the first month of this crucial campaign.

But if there's a panic button being pushed, it's not happening in public. Head coach Mike O'Shea calmly insisted Thursday that life without quarterback Matt Nichols will go on, and hopefully smoothly, while he recovers from a knee injury suffered during practice Wednesday.

"This is what's exciting, for the opportunities for these guys. They don't like the way they get these opportunities, nobody does, but they are opportunities. And we'll see who takes the most advantage of it," O'Shea said Thursday, referring to the suddenly all-important battle to be the club's starter for the next four to six weeks.

"Do I believe we got the guys right here, right now? Absolutely. It's never about one guy. It's a great team sport."

Nichols has been placed on the six-game injured list but could be pulled off early if the knee co-operates.

"That's an administrative thing. If he's healthier in the four, which I would think he would be, then we'll decide then what we'll do," said O'Shea. "I always expect a player is four rather than six."

Nichols went down after dropping back to throw the ball. O'Shea wouldn't say if the injury is a tear or a strain, but admitted they may have dodged a bullet; there were fears of an even-worse diagnosis.

<p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers Quarterbacks coach Buck Pierce speaks to the four remaining quarterbacks during practice at Investors Group Field Thursday, the day after starter, Matt Nichols, went down after a non-contact injury.</p>

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Quarterbacks coach Buck Pierce speaks to the four remaining quarterbacks during practice at Investors Group Field Thursday, the day after starter, Matt Nichols, went down after a non-contact injury.

"When you're dealing with people, you don't ever think that it's fortunate that they got injured in practice," he said. "But, yeah, it's a positive that it's that timeline for sure."

The spotlight is now focused on tonight's final pre-season game in Vancouver, essentially an audition to see who gets the start when the Bombers begin playing for real next week.

Second-year pro Alex Ross, rookie Chris Streveler and third-string Bryan Bennett will get long looks against the Lions. Ross has thrown 12 regular-season passes in his CFL career, while Streveler and Bennett have a grand total of zero. The club also has Canadian rookie Zack Mahoney in camp as a fourth quarterback, although he won't dress for this game.

"We gotta give each guy enough reps to see where they're gonna fall, where they're gonna land in terms of the depth chart," O'Shea said. "So we're gonna make sure that each guy gets enough reps to really evaluate."

Winnipeg originally had a solid backup plan in place in the form of veteran Darian Durant, who announced his retirement just as training camp was set to begin and walked away from the team with a $70,000 signing bonus despite never having pulled on a blue-and-gold jersey.

Now the expected one-two experienced punch of Nichols and Durant is likely going to look like Ross/Streveler or Streveler/Ross for as much as the first third of the season.

Despite this, O'Shea said he won't be looking to management to throw him a lifeline in the form of some experienced help. He believes the Bombers still have the horses to be a force, even without Nichols.

"I know everybody in the building expects to win," said O'Shea. "I imagine (Bombers GM Kyle Walters) is fielding a pile of calls. But we're pretty happy with what we've got."

<p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers Quarterback Matt Nichols comes off of the field after an injury during practice on Wednesday.</p>

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Quarterback Matt Nichols comes off of the field after an injury during practice on Wednesday.

Ross completed just one of his eight pass attempts for eight yards in last week's 33-13 exhibition win over Edmonton. The former B.C. depth quarterback who saw extremely limited action last season was cut and signed by the Bombers earlier this spring.

"Regardless of the situation it is still an opportunity," Ross said Thursday. "My mindset hasn't changed as far as coming out here and showing the coaches I can compete and doing the best I can."

Streveler, a recent graduate from the University of South Dakota, showed promise in going 10-for-10 for 140 yards and a touchdown against the Eskimos. A similar performance against the Lions could see him under centre out of the starting blocks.

"I've just got to continue to work and learn and compete every day. That's been kind of the goal all through camp, and now with camp kind of closing up and going into this last game, I just have to think of it as another day to improve and prove the work you've put in," Streveler said.

"I don't want to look too far ahead. (Friday's) a really big day to go out and get better."

Streveler said losing Nichols before the season begins is a big blow, both for his leadership on and off the field.

"He's one of the best guys. He's just a great guy. The second I came here in mini-camp, and since I've been here since camp, he's been more than willing to help everyone out. To see something like that, it's tough," he said.

"I know that the person he is, he'll bounce back and he'll be ready to go when ready."

<p>Winnipeg Blue Bomber head coach Mike O'Shea wears his worries on his face at a walk through practice Thursday morning at Investors Group Field.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bomber head coach Mike O'Shea wears his worries on his face at a walk through practice Thursday morning at Investors Group Field.

When told O'Shea believes outside help isn't needed, Streveler said he doesn't take that as a personal endorsement.

"It's a team game. There's 24 guys out on the field. There's so many things that go into a team doing well. Obviously there's guys that are going to have to step up all around the team. I think that's just him saying, 'Hey, we've got a real good core group of guys here.' Even in the short time I've been here, I've been able to feel the leadership just from so many different positions."

One of those leaders is veteran receiver Weston Dressler, who said Thursday the onus is now on everyone else to take on an even bigger role.

"It doesn't change. We've got a good group of guys here. It's just a different guy behind the centre. It's going to be a little bit of a learning process, understanding especially as a receiver... the types of reads that our next guy will like to be making, the way he's seeing the field, maybe the things he does a little different from the way Matt was. You make adjustments. You improvise and overcome the next situation," he said.

He believes dynamic running back Andrew Harris and a strong offensive line can help mitigate the damage of losing Nichols.

"As long as everyone's doing their job, we'll be in a position to win some games still," Dressler said. He was asked if it crossed his mind to pick up the phone and call Durant, his former Saskatchewan teammate to plead with him to change his mind.

"That situation happened. So you kind of have to move on from it," he said. "You can pout and moan and look at where we could have been in a situation-wise, but I see a couple young quarterbacks with a great opportunity ahead of them and hopefully one of them will be able to shine and prove that they can play in this league and have a bright future ahead of them because of this."

Dressler has become close with Nichols and spoke with him Wednesday night.

"It was better news than it could have been. But also still at the same time, it's a tough situation," he said. "It's almost like a brief mourning period and then you realize we've still got other guys in the room that are really good football players, too. And football is the ultimate team sport, and not one guy is going to make or break a team."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

Read full biography

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