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This article was published 15/11/2018 (363 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If you think Drew Wolitarsky is a quick study, you probably weren't aware of the hours he's spent absorbing the nuances of the CFL game over the last 15 months.
During his rookie season, the 23-year-old wide receiver from Santa Clarita, Calif., could often be found in the company of a coffee, PB and J sandwich and his playbook.
And to hear him tell it, it was time well spent alone.
"I would take it everywhere with me," said Wolitarsky as the Blue Bombers wrapped up their third last day of preparation for Sunday's West Division final in Calgary.
"If we had two days off, I'd go to St. Boniface and find a coffee shop or cafe with the playbook and have breakfast. I always wanted to be prepared. The Canadian league, you've got an extra receiver, everything is moving so that was something I needed to really work on understanding. Especially this offence is very dynamic, probably the most in the league."
The second-year man isn't the speediest pass catcher in Winnipeg's fleet but his hands rarely fail him and his route running, well, that's something special, too.
His reputation is growing but he could still be the Bombers' stealth weapon against the Stampeders after a stellar five-catch, 68-yard output against Saskatchewan. He also scored a crucial first-half touchdown to give the Blue Bombers an early lead and he figures to be a factor in Sunday's West final.
The winner of the Calgary-Winnipeg matchup will meet the winner of the East final between the Ottawa Redblacks and Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup game on Nov. 25.
A star at Canyon High School where he established California state career records for catches (281) and receiving yards (5,148), breaking marks established by future NFLer Steve Smith, Wolitarsky admitted he wasn't much of a film guy when he arrive at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2013.
"I didn't really watch film because in high school... you could just go out and kill everything," he said. "Not til my junior year in college — once I started to understand how to watch film. You have to learn how to watch film because a lot of times, when you're young, you just watch where the ball's going, right? 'Yeah, that was a cool catch, great play, that was awesome.'
"But once you starting diving in in college, there's different coverages than the cover-3, cover-2 and cover-4 that you see in high school. There's a lot of variance, especially in the pros. You've gotta be able to see stuff on the fly."
Wolitarsky also found a like-minded teammate, Minnesota quarterback Mitch Lydner, to help him dissect film. About that time, he learned it was not only important to study opposing defences but he needed to evaluate his own play.
"You have to see your tendencies because defenders are seeing the same things," said Wolitarsky.
Chosen by the Blue Bombers in the 2017 supplemental draft, Wolitarsky arrived in Winnipeg with the regular season already underway. He found a teammate, veteran slotback Weston Dressler, to be an excellent sounding board.
"For Wolly, the biggest thing was he came in last year and he had missed all of training camp, so he missed all the playbook install which is the best time to learn the offence and he immediately started watching film with me after practices every day," said Dressler.
"We would watch a practice, we would go over all the different receivers, all the little notes within the play that sometimes get overlooked by guys and it seemed like in a very short time last year be picked up our offence and going into this season he had that stuff down.
"So he was able to play with that confidence knowing he was doing the right things and trusting that he was seeing that right. All of that has paid off for him throughout this year."
Part of the payoff was illustrated by the 20-yard touchdown play Sunday in Regina. On the sequence, Wolitarsky's used a double move to elude Saskatchewan defensive back Mike Eden to get behind coverage to haul in a perfectly thrown ball from quarterback Matt Nichols.
The TD play, Wolitarsky said, probably wouldn't have happened without a careful manipulation earlier in the game.
"It's second and 10 and Matt throws me that route that I ran the double move on," recalled Wolitarsky. "It's really just a little slant and go, so he throws me a slant for six yards, we get stopped, we kick a field goal. We go back to the sideline and look at the film and say, 'OK, we see this guy (Eden) is really driving this route, we can max protect and (set him up).' That's what you've gotta do, that's how you've gotta see the game."
His progress has been staggering. After dressing for five games and catching one pass for 15 yards in 2017, he exploded for 45 catches, 650 yards and five TDs in 18 games this season.
"The guy has got amazing hands, makes tough catches and uses his body well," added Dressler. "He’s been huge for us in kind of a sneaky way that maybe some people don’t realize or don’t give him enough credit for. I was glad to see him make those big plays in the game this past weekend, on the playoff stage — the big stage — and more people got to see what he’s been doing for us all year long."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 8:25 PM CST: Edits.