Richie Hall won't have to alter his playbook too much for the 2021 CFL season, not with a number of starters from his 2019 Grey-Cup winning defence returning to the Blue and Gold.
"We have a good foundation that we've put in place over the last number of years, and what we want to do is continue to expand on what has already been in place," Hall told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. "We're at a different level, we have some different players; they're comfortable in what we're doing, and we just want to take it to the next level. We won't be the same but will be very similar."
Hall, now in his fifth season as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive co-ordinator, has a lot to like on his roster. The defensive line is as good as ever, with defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat, as well as Jonathan Kongbo, back in the mix. Adam Bighill is back leading a linebackers group that will also have Kyrie Wilson and Mercy Maston.
Where Hall has a sizable hole to fill is in his secondary. With cornerback Winston Rose darting to the NFL and halfback Marcus Sayles signing with the B.C. Lions, Hall is tasked with finding a new duo to patrol the ever-important boundary side of the field.
"That's the onus of emphasis right now, trying to find two people to replace that and then provide depth all around," he said. "I feel, and we as a staff feel very good going into training camp right now, just because there's not a lot of patchwork that we're trying to fill."
Hall has been around the league long enough to know the kind of impact the loss of Rose and Sayles are to the team's last line of defence. But he's also got the experience to know there's players out there ready for the opportunity to fill those spots. And he's eager to see what comes of it, with a battle surely to rage in training camp.
Rose and Sayles are proof of what good scouting and opportunity can bring. Rose spent just one year with the Bombers, after one-season stints in B.C. and Ottawa, and grew throughout that year, eventually becoming the CFL's leader in interceptions, with nine. Sayles joined the Bombers as a rookie in 2018, performed admirably, and by his second year was named a West Division all-star.
"I don't think it's ever easy replacing people of that calibre that we lost. But at the same time, our secondary at the beginning of 2019 was different from when we won the Grey Cup. So, it's an evolution," Hall said. "We have a lot of young guys that we're excited to see battle it out and that's why you have training camp. We'll see who wins. But are we concerned about it? No, because when you look at each year there's always been a number of changes that we've had to make for whatever reason, and we seem to have come out OK."
Hall wasn't lying about the turnover in his secondary in that championship-winning season. The Bombers did have Rose and Sayles in their starting lineup in Week 1, but the other three spots saw a makeover by the time the Bombers were hoisting the Cup.
Brandon Alexander moved from field-side halfback to safety, replacing Jeff Hecht, making room for Nick Taylor to take over Alexander's spot. Chandler Fenner began the season playing field-side corner, only to have Mike Jones take over when the stakes were at their highest.
Hall isn't worried about what he sees now, because ultimately things will change. Taylor and Jones are back, and so, too, is Alexander, and there's a chance any one of these players could side into the holes left on the boundary side.
"Over time, whether it's practice, whether it's games, they play themselves out. I guess I don't get too excited because one year when I was with that other team… we had six rookie DBs," Hall said. "So, to play with six rookie DBs, that's a challenge, you know. To try and find one or two, that seems pretty minimal."
He added: "When we line up against Hamilton (Aug. 5), we'll have somebody over there and we'll feel very confident in them."
Hall has other options outside of an inexperienced rookie. There's Josh Johnson, who has 64 CFL games on his resume, including 17 with Edmonton in 2019. Johnson was brought in to soften the blow of losing Sayles and Rose, and now he'll finally get his chance to impress.
Another point Hall pressed was because there was significant turnover in the secondary in 2019, the chance to build chemistry in training camp wasn't there. That changes this season with the returning players in the secondary, with that continuity also benefitting the new bodies about to come in.
"They came in and didn't have a training camp together. But now they're gonna have a training camp together. They've kept in contact since we last have been on the field; they're very close unit," Hall said. "They might have been on the field as a group, maybe four or five games, but they came so far, so fast. That's they're starting point right now, which is different than a couple of years ago. I know they're very excited to come back, because now they get a chance to grow together, versus kind of plug and play. They get a chance to learn the foundation together."
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.