November 17, 2017

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Stuck in the middle of Blue

While most starters have been chosen, interior linebacker remains a question

Throughout training camp and now into Week 1 of the CFL schedule, there are more certainties than doubts for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Scrolling through the 60 players who currently make up this year’s roster, it’s easy to pick out the expected starters for the Bombers when they open the regular season July 1 in Regina against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The entire offensive line is intact from last year and will be expected to keep Matt Nichols on his feet as he enters his first full campaign as the No. 1 quarterback. Next to Nichols will be running back Andrew Harris, along with a receivers group that is once again highlighted by veterans Clarence Denmark, Weston Dressler and Darvin Adams.

The biggest splash in free agency for the Bombers came in upgrading the defensive line, adding the likes of Tristan Okpalaugo and Drake Nevis to complement Jamaal Westerman. The secondary, though vulnerable to giving up far too many yards, dominated the CFL in turnovers last season and many of the usual suspects — minus Terence Frederick, who was released earlier this month — are back for another year. Ian Wild is a lock at weak-side linebacker while Maurice Leggett, last year’s co-leader in interceptions with seven, will play the strong side.

Though all that is clear on the depth chart, there remains a giant question mark at middle linebacker, where Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea refuses to name a starter. Who will play middle linebacker has been a hot topic ever since the departure of tackles leader Khalil Bass, who slid into the role last season after an injury to Sam Hurl. But with Bass now in Ottawa — and despite Hurl beingback at full health — the job, at least on the surface, appears to be very much up for grabs.

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Throughout training camp and now into Week 1 of the CFL schedule, there are more certainties than doubts for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Scrolling through the 60 players who currently make up this year’s roster, it’s easy to pick out the expected starters for the Bombers when they open the regular season July 1 in Regina against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The entire offensive line is intact from last year and will be expected to keep Matt Nichols on his feet as he enters his first full campaign as the No. 1 quarterback. Next to Nichols will be running back Andrew Harris, along with a receivers group that is once again highlighted by veterans Clarence Denmark, Weston Dressler and Darvin Adams.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Mike O’Shea has a tough choice as to who will start at middle linebacker — Kyle Knox (left) or Sam Hurl.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Mike O’Shea has a tough choice as to who will start at middle linebacker — Kyle Knox (left) or Sam Hurl.

The biggest splash in free agency for the Bombers came in upgrading the defensive line, adding the likes of Tristan Okpalaugo and Drake Nevis to complement Jamaal Westerman. The secondary, though vulnerable to giving up far too many yards, dominated the CFL in turnovers last season and many of the usual suspects — minus Terence Frederick, who was released earlier this month — are back for another year. Ian Wild is a lock at weak-side linebacker while Maurice Leggett, last year’s co-leader in interceptions with seven, will play the strong side.

Though all that is clear on the depth chart, there remains a giant question mark at middle linebacker, where Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea refuses to name a starter. Who will play middle linebacker has been a hot topic ever since the departure of tackles leader Khalil Bass, who slid into the role last season after an injury to Sam Hurl. But with Bass now in Ottawa — and despite Hurl beingback at full health — the job, at least on the surface, appears to be very much up for grabs.

"From the minute I wasn’t playing that position last year, that was the whole plan, to make it back to that spot," Hurl, 27, said in a recent interview.

The best indicator in predicting a potential starter is by the number of reps the player receives with the first-team unit. In that case, it would appear the edge belongs to Hurl, who has taken nearly ever rep there since camp first opened in May. Hurl was somewhat of a surprise candidate for this season despite starting all 18 games at middle linebacker in 2015 — a year the Bombers won just five games. Instead, the job looked set up for Kyle Knox, now in his second season with the Bombers after jumping around the NFL for a few years.

"The bottom line is whether it’s an advantage or not, if they don’t get those reps but they get the opportunity, they have to make good with that opportunity," O’Shea said.

O’Shea told reporters earlier this week, in his first appearance since the Bombers made their final cuts Saturday, that he liked the competition between Knox and Hurl.

Both appear to be picking up the defence during practice, but neither was able to stand out in the pre-season, with Hurl recording two tackles and Knox one in a 38-38 tie with the Edmonton Eskimos last week.

Knox had just one tackle the week before in a tie against the Riders, while Hurl was given the night off.

"I have high expectations for myself when I play, so even the plays that the coach might have complimented me on, I still didn’t hold them to my highest regard because I know I can play better," Knox, 28, said Wednesday after practice. "The film doesn’t lie. It comes to back to me being in the right position at the right time to help the team."

Hurl has once again been working with the first-team defence this week, though a decision as to whether he’ll be there come game day still hasn’t been made. O’Shea’s commitment to being non-committal is likely to do with the fact he doesn’t want to give away information to his opponent and since the Bombers have a bye this week, there is little motivation in tipping his hand early. But another part has to be because he just doesn’t know who has the job yet.

"As we saw last year, and I’ve said this before, at this point they’re all first-teamers," O’Shea said. "Their number could get called any time and they’re going to have to go out there and perform."

Though depth is important for every team — and certainly was for the Bombers and their success in 2016 — suggesting that every player is a starter is more a belief system than a fact. What the Bombers believe they need in a starting middle linebacker, however, is both clear and complex.

"We play a real team-oriented defence and our middle linebacker has got to be tough, has got to be able to be smart, put people in the right positions and have a high football IQ as well as be a leader out there," said Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall.

"The guys that we have there we feel they are guys that can do it. They’re not flashy but when you look at our defence we’re not flashy. We’re just a bunch of blue-collar people that go out there and just work hard and make plays and play within the confines of our team and not one individual."

Hall, when asked to compare Hurl and Knox, said he believed Knox to be more athletic, but that Hurl is the more experienced of the two. After all, this will be Hurl’s sixth season in the CFL and all six years he’s been under Hall’s defence, dating back to when the two were together in Saskatchewan.

"In a perfect world you’d like to have a linebacker that runs a 4.5 (40-yard dash), that’s big, that’s strong… but everyone is going to have their own attributes as far as what they bring," Hall said.

"Because you’re the quarterback of the defence out there, you make all the calls and you got to put people in the right position. That’s what we ask for our guy."

What complicates things — and what should be considered an advantage for Hurl — is the decision may also rest on where the Bombers plan to play their Canadians. If Hurl, a native of Calgary, were able to succeed at middle linebacker, it would free up another spot in the lineup to play an import. If so, an area that might be targeted is along the defensive line. The Bombers have liked what they’ve seen from Cory "Poop" Johnson and he could replace Jake Thomas at defensive tackle alongside Nevis on the inside.

"Whoever starts or whoever plays, they’re all going to be utilized to the betterment of our football team," Hall said.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Read more by Jeff Hamilton.

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Updated on Thursday, June 22, 2017 at 7:39 AM CDT: Photo added.

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