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May 13, 2019

Positional Preview | Specialists

Winnipeg Blue Bombers kicker Justin Medlock (9) kicks the extra point conversion against the B.C. Lions during the first half of CFL action in Winnipeg Saturday, October 14, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers open training camp on May 19th. This is the first in our annual positional-preview series leading up to the first day of camp…

THE SPECIALISTS

Professional football offers very few givens. Yet, in a business in which change is almost a daily occurrence, one aspect of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers has been as consistent as a metronome over the last few years.

And it goes like this: Chad Rempel unleashes a snap, the ball is put on the tee, and Justin Medlock methodically drills it through the uprights.

Dating back to 2016 and Medlock’s first season in Bombers colours, the veteran kicker has connected on 85.4% of his field goals (158-185) and 100% of his converts (140-140). He set a CFL record in ’16 with 60 field goals, kicked game winners, led the league in scoring in 2016 and 2017, tied a club record with a 58-yard-field goal in his first game as a Bomber, tied another record with seven field goals in a game, connected on 28 consecutive threes over 2016-17 – establishing a new club mark – was named the Bombers Most Outstanding Special Teams Player in 2016, 2017, 2018 and CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player in 2016.

Oh, and he’s morphed into a heckuva punter, too, and last year posted a career-best 44.5-yard average while leading the CFL with 13 kicks placed inside the opponents’ 10-yard line.

Yet, as we study the Bombers specialists in the first instalment of our annual positional preview series leading up to the opening of training camp, the stability of the Rempel-Medlock battery and the return of critical special teams foot soldiers is countered by the uncertainty in the return game with the departures of Kevin Fogg and Ryan Lankford to free agency.

Fogg, now with the Toronto Argonauts, led the Bombers in punt return yardage in each of the last three years – averaging 67 returns for 780 yards over that stretch. And Lankford, who signed with the Ottawa REDBLACKS, led the Bombers in kickoff return yardage in 2017, finished second to Nic Demski in that department last year, and had a combined 62 returns for 1,492 yards in his two years here.

Translation? That’s a whole pile of touches, reliable and consistent touches, out the door as the 2019 campaign approaches.

But change doesn’t have to be frightening and the Bombers have at least two return candidates who could land work during camp. The first, Charles Nelson, is a player the club got a sneak peek at last fall and the other, Lucky Whitehead, arrives after two years in the NFL and a stand-out mini-camp in Florida.

Other returners could jump out in the preseason games – although those opportunities are often limited – so Nelson and Whitehead, both receivers, may get the longest looks because of their credentials and then earn a roster spot as one of the designated imports. They’ll be asked to boost a return game that finished second last in average punt and kickoff return yardage.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Charles Nelson, right, is chased by Calgary Stampeders’ during first half CFL West final football action in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Nelson, who impressed in the regular season finale last year, was a standout during his days with the University of Oregon, earning the school’s Gordon E. Wilson Award as the top special teams player in 2014 and was also a special teams First-Team Pac-12 All-Conference in 2015.

Whitehead, meanwhile, appeared in 30 games in 2015-16 with the Dallas Cowboys, serving primarily as a punt and kickoff returner. He was released by the Cowboys in what turned out to be a bizarre case of mistaken identity and then struggled through injuries in a shot with the New York Jets in 2017.

The Bombers kick-cover units are paced by two of the best in the league in Chandler Fenner – who led the Bombers with 24 special teams tackles and has finished second in the league in that department for the last two years – and veteran Mike Miller, who finished fifth in the CFL with 22 tackles on specials.

Package all of this together and then have the bunch work under the tutelage of head coach Mike O’Shea and special teams coordinator Paul Boudreau and the Bombers, even with the changes to the return game and new foot soldiers undoubtedly to emerge on the kick-cover and kick-return units, should once again be among the Canadian Football League’s elite.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Lucky Whitehead (87) runs after catching a pass during a team mini -camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton Florida on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. Photo by Tom O’Neill


A LOOK AT THE SPECIALISTS

The Returnees:

Placekicker/punter: Justin Medlock
Long-snapper: Chad Rempel*
Holder: Bryan Bennett
Punt returns: vacant
Kickoff returns: vacant

The Candidates:

Returners: Charles Nelson, Lucky Whitehead, SB Nic Demski* (who finished second to Fogg in punt-return yardage last year and led the club in kickoff returns), DB Tyneil Cooper.
Kickers: CFL-LFA (Mexico) draft pick:  Gabriel Ortiz

*Indicates Canadian

IMPACT NEWCOMER

WR/Returner Lucky Whitehead

His background is detailed above, and the Bombers could use a boost to their return game. With such a short camp and just two preseason games, every touch – including those in daily practice – will be evaluated.

X FACTOR

WR Charles Nelson

In his one appearance last year, Nelson was all over the stats sheet with three catches for 35 yards, four punt returns – albeit for just seven yards – five kickoff returns for a solid 123 yards and three tackles on special teams. Small sample size, yes, but those are numbers that get you noticed.

NOTABLE NUMBER 3

One more stat that highlights the impact the Bombers made on special teams last year: they led the CFL with three blocked kicks, one each by Mike Miller, Rashaun Simonise and Marcus Sayles.