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This article was published 16/5/2018 (515 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had their way, Darian Durant’s impact on the 2018 CFL season would have been minimal. Instead, it was Durant who had the final say, with the 12-year veteran signing as a free agent over the winter only to terminate the relationship just days before training camp, putting the Bombers in what could prove to be big trouble.
When Durant shocked the league with his sudden retirement last week, it not only stunned fans but angered the Bombers brass, who not only had to suck up the fact they forfeited $70,000 in bonus money but now have to move on with what could be perceived as a serious lack of depth at the most important position on the field.
But if there were any ill feelings towards Durant lingering on Wednesday, as the Bombers opened rookie camp at Investors Group Field, all cards were being held close to the chest. While there’s no doubt Winnipeg is still wondering what they truly have after starting quarterback Matt Nichols, head coach Mike O’Shea decided to see his current predicament in a different way.
"The guy feels it’s time to be done, that’s his decision. I’m never going to judge a guy on that. If you think it’s over for you it’s probably over," said O’Shea. "We’ve got some guys that, in a very short period of time, have stepped into a better opportunity and it’s going to be exciting to see how they seize that opportunity."
What matters, O’Shea said, is "what do they do with it?"
The answer to that question just might define the season for the Bombers.
While Nichols has developed into one of the elite quarterbacks in the CFL, posting some of the best numbers among pivots over the past two seasons, what’s also become clear is without him under centre, the Bombers just aren’t the same team.
When Nichols suffered a string of injuries late in the season last year, forcing him to miss much of the final two games of the regular season, his replacements proved unreliable at the controls. It's why the Bombers went out and acquired Durant, to provide the kind of safety net at quarterback many believe is required to win a Grey Cup.
The Bombers no longer have such a luxury. In addition to losing Durant, last season's Bombers backups have also moved on. Dominique Davis signed with the Ottawa Redblacks and Dan LeFevour opted to retire.
Though Durant did come with a fair amount of concerns, including an ego that could make his absence a blessing in disguise, had he been able to accept his new role and surroundings, it would have been the perfect scenario to breed a pair of up-and-comers in Alex Ross and Chris Streveler.
"If you could have had that extra guy to bounce ideas off of, that would have been great. But at the same time this is a game where if you’re not 100 per cent committed to it, it’s not something you want to go half-heartedly into," Nichols said, noting he still has quarterbacks coach Buck Pierce, who played nine seasons in the CFL, as a mentor.
"For us, it just means we need to get these guys up to speed as quickly as possible and spend the extra time with the quarterbacks and make sure they’re up to par on the playbook. If they do have to play hopefully it’s just during garbage time, when we’re up a lot at the end of the game."
Making sure Nichols is healthy all season will surely be the plan. Nichols said during April’s mini-camp that he’s fully healed from the broken finger and second-degree strain of his left calf that kept him sidelined last season. Keeping him on his feet, and away from the medical room, might be a more difficult task if not for the fact the Bombers boast arguably the best offensive line in the CFL.
But Nichols also knows what’s at stake if he does go down and he’s willing to do his part, including making sure he’s throwing the ball away or making the safe slide when running with it. But that’s only when it’s called for, he said, adding he doesn’t plan to take out any of the ferocity in his game for which he’s become defined by his teammates.
"You can’t play this game scared," he said. "I’m going to go out and play the way I always have and we have full trust in the guys that we have here that they’ll be ready to go."
In the event Nichols does get injured, it will up to either Ross, who saw limited action with the B.C. Lions, or Streveler, who joins the Bombers straight out of college after two stellar seasons with the University of South Dakota, to take over the offence.
Ross, 25, is the more experienced of the two, though only by a slim margin. With the Lions, he completed five passes in 12 attempts for 82 yards and two interceptions. Still, the fact he’s gone through the culture shock that happens with every American that travels north to Canada, it gives him a slight edge to be the No. 2.
A less likely option is Zack Mahoney, 23, who played college football at Syracuse but has Canadian status. He was passed over during May’s CFL draft and doesn’t count against the 75-player limit at camp.
"The starting job is Matt Nichol’s — he’s a great quarterback, he’s a veteran in this league — but the opportunity has changed for that backup job — for all of us, for all of these guys," Ross said. "You got to be ready to roll and when that film starts rolling you got to be able to put it on tape."
As for Streveler, the Bombers never imagined the 23-year old would be on their roster so soon after adding him to the team’s negotiation list. But after months of communication with offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice, and a trip down to Winnipeg last month to get a better grasp of the team, he committed to the Bombers despite having interest from the NFL.
"While to some people it might seem like maybe the more glamorous decision to say you went and did an NFL mini-camp but at the end of the day I just wanted an opportunity to compete and play football," Streveler said. "There’s no place I’d rather be."
In his senior season with the Coyotes, Streveler set 20 records for the program, including passing yards (4,134) and total offence (4,854). He accounted for 43 touchdowns — 32 passing, 11 rushing — and was a runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the NCAA's FCS football.
With his strong arm and ability to run under pressure, one might think the bigger CFL field would be perfect for him. But, like the Bombers in dealing with the loss of Durant, Streveler wasn’t about to get too far ahead of himself.
"Day 1 is too soon to tell anything, so I’m just trying to continue to learn and compete," he said.
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.