August 13, 2020

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Bombers brain trust coping with COVID-19, building for 2020

In any other year, Kyle Walters would be able to walk down the hallway from his office at IG Field, knock on Mike O’Shea’s door and find receptive audience for another round of intense football talk.

The discussion might revolve around a free-agent player Walters was considering for a contract offer or maybe the pluses and minuses of a prospect for the upcoming CFL draft.

This is not any other year.

Walters, general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and O’Shea, entering his seventh season as the club’s head coach, are in uncharted territory, grappling with issues caused by the COVID-19 virus that would have seemed unfathomable a few months ago.

Even members of the Grey Cup-winning CFL brain trust have to work in isolation.

Two weeks ago, the CFL cancelled this month’s draft combine in Toronto and shut down all free-agent camps and in-person recruiting in the U.S. The draft, slated for April 30, is expected to go ahead but the scheduled start of training camp and the regular season appears to be in serious jeopardy.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers General Manager Kyle Walters says he is being forced to adjust on the fly like everyone else. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press Files)

Winnipeg Blue Bombers General Manager Kyle Walters says he is being forced to adjust on the fly like everyone else. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press Files)

So, what to do? For Walters, the solution is straightforward: do your job as well as you can.

"We’re fortunate enough to be in a line of work where everything is on the computer, all the film and all the kids’ film from their senior years are on film, so we’ve been watching a ton of that," said Walters in a telephone chat Wednesday.

"Calling the coaches, calling the players, so we’re trying to make do the best we can. It’s certainly difficult prepping for the draft without seeing the kids live, in person, running around and competing against each other but it is what it is and everybody’s on an equal playing field. In these crazy times, we’re sort of adjusting on the fly like everybody else."

"We’re talking more to the university coaches than in year’s past. We’re calling players individually to try to get all this information. So we’re taking a different approach and hopefully the end result is the same." – Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters

On Monday, Walters, O’Shea and assistant GM Ted Goveia spent five hours on a conference call, going over every draft-eligible player and crafting an individual assessment for each one.

The sleight of hand this spring will be making accurate assessments on players without an in-person eye test or interview they all prefer.

"You’re not going to be able to see these kids test to make sure their athletic ability matches up to a CFL standard," said Walters. "So a lot of it’s going to be much more about the game film and going with the kid that might not athletically meet it and you can’t tell. But we’re going to draft kids that play hard, compete hard and coaches know things about them."

The Bombers found Thiadric Hansen during last year's global combine. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

The Bombers found Thiadric Hansen during last year's global combine. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

The Blue Bombers have seven picks in the draft but after dealing their first- and third-rounders to the Toronto Argonauts in the trade for quarterback Zach Collaros, they won’t choose until the 18th overall slot.

"This draft will be OK," said Walters. "Generally, the rule of thumb is a first-round pick goes to an O-lineman and we’re good there. We’re OK this year missing a first-round pick. We’ll find the best player who can come in an help on special teams and grow into a starting role."

Last spring, defensive backs Nick Hallett of the University of Toronto and Kerfalla Exume of the University of Montreal, chosen in the seventh and eighth rounds, respectively, were the sort of gems any team is looking for. Hallett had a poor, injury-plagued senior season in school while Exume didn’t excel as a defender but had an underated ability on special teams.

"(Hallett) showed up at one of the regional combines, kinda as an unknown guy, and had a great day," said Walters. "(He) kinda raised everybody’s eyebrows — ‘Who is this guy?’ and then you go back and watch film from his third season, his second season and you realize, ‘Hey, this guy’s got a chance.’ Without him showing what he can do at the regional combine, he might not have gotten his name on the radar."

Meanwhile, one of Exume’s college coaches alerted the Bombers to his stellar work on punt and kickoff cover teams.

"We’re talking more to the university coaches than in year’s past," said Walters. "We’re calling players individually to try to get all this information. So we’re taking a different approach and hopefully the end result is the same."

Another key item on Winnipeg’s checklist is getting a sense of a draft prospect’s love of the game, something that would be easier to determine in a face-to-face meeting.

Kerfalla Exume (middle) found his groove on special teams. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Files)

Kerfalla Exume (middle) found his groove on special teams. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Files)

"We’ve talked to a lot more kids and one of the challenges we discussed was how do you pull that information out of them and get them talking about football," said Walters. "Make your notes and see if we get information — which is, do they love the game of football and are they passionate for football?"

The pandemic has also forced the CFL to delay its Global Combine and Draft, which will be conducted in Toronto prior to the start of training camp.

A year ago, Winnipeg plucked German linebacker Thiadric Hansen and he turned into a valuable asset and perhaps the best global player on any CFL roster in 2019.

The Bombers will need to find another contributer in this year’s five-round draft as the league goes to two global players on the active roster. Approximately 100 players have been scouted by the league and 60 will attend the combine.

Filling the training camp roster is almost complete for the Blue Bombers. Walters expects to have four quarterbacks — he currently has three — in camp and he needs to fill one vacant spot on his staff with the departure of defensive line and linebackers coach Glen Young to Toronto.

"It’s only about five or six to reach our maximum of 100 (players)," said Walters. "So we’re in a decent spot right now."

 

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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