Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive-line coach Marty Costello has a lot to work with and he's the first to admit it.
The Blue and Gold have talent all over the roster, but the O-line is where they arguably have the most depth.
"Some days I feel like I'm probably the luckiest coach in the CFL, quite honestly," Costello said after Wednesday's practice at IG Field.
"It does help me sleep a little bit better at night. I'm extremely fortunate to be in the situation that we are. I'm glad the organization has made a commitment to a number of O-linemen and making sure it's been a priority for us."
But that depth could be tested on Friday night in Edmonton in yet another meeting with the Elks (2-6). Reliable right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick is currently nursing a hip injury he suffered in last week's 30-3 victory at IG Field over Edmonton. Hardrick was a spectator Wednesday which opened the door to backup guard/centre Asotui Eli practising with the first-team offence and versatile veteran Patrick Neufeld shifting over to Hardrick's right tackle spot. Eli came off the bench in Friday's contest to play guard after Hardrick left late in the first half and was replaced by Neufeld.
As usual, head coach Mike O'Shea wouldn't share any details on the injury, but if Hardrick is to miss any time, expect Eli to be the next man up. The 25-year-old who was born in Richmond, B.C. and played at the University of Hawaii is an interesting prospect for the Bombers. A fourth-round pick in the 2019 CFL Draft, Eli was once in the conversation for the Rimington Award — a trophy that goes to the top centre in NCAA football — but his stock took a hit in 2018 when he missed the season with a knee injury and considered moving on from football. The Bombers took a chance on him in the draft anyway, which paid off big time as when Eli — who made five regular-season appearances in 2019 and has dressed in all nine games this season — has gotten opportunities to play, looks like someone who could start for most teams around the league.
"He likes to go play physical. I remember at the end of our game when we were taking a knee, we were saying 'Taking a knee, taking a knee' and he's like 'Nah, screw that. Let's run the football.' That's just his mentality," Neufeld said.
"He's an aggressive guy and he's done all he could to earn the position he's in right now. I'm extremely happy for him and excited to see his development progress."
While Eli has gotten some game action this year, the same can't be said for guard Geoff Gray. The Winnipegger who earned NFL looks from the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns after starring for the University of Manitoba Bisons hasn't dressed for a single game all season. The eighth overall pick in the 2017 CFL Draft played in 13 games in 2019, but this year's stacked O-line featuring Stanley Bryant, Drew Desjarlais, Michael Couture, Neufeld, and Hardrick has managed to stay healthy — until now — which has forced Gray to be in street clothes on game day.
If Hardrick is ruled out for Friday, Gray will likely be asked to suit up and be the first offensive lineman off the bench if needed.
"Geoff's a professional and I know he's disappointed. I know he wants to play. But he's handled it accordingly," Costello said.
"He's been a professional about it and comes in every day, does his job, tries to get better and does whatever we ask him to do and fits in with the guys. He probably handles it better than I would, I can tell you that."
Sitting at 8-1 with a wide open path to the West Division crown, perhaps the biggest concern for the Bombers between now and post-season play is staying healthy. The team has handled injuries to running back Andrew Harris, wide receiver Darvin Adams, defensive tackle Steven Richardson and linebacker Kyrie Wilson at different points of the season, but the Bombers won't want to be tested without their best players in the lineup come November and December.
"We obviously want to come out and play our best football when it's the most important and a part of that is staying healthy," said Neufeld.
"Not saying that you're taking anything away from your intensity when you're out there on the field because you just can't play winning football that way. So, we're gonna play really hard, really physical, really fast and we trust our coaching staff and training staff will allow us to recover and do the things we need during the week to get us to that level where we can play our best football."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.