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May 14, 2019

Positional Preview | Offensive Line

Michael Couture (70) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the BC Lions at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, BC., on Friday, July 21, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

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


OFFENSIVE LINE

They followed each other as successive first-round/second-overall draft picks by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2014 and 2015 and then lined up beside each other in the trenches for virtually every game over their four years together.

And so in that sense Matthias Goossen and Sukh Chungh not only became fixtures on the Bombers offensive line, but prime examples of the club’s draft-and-develop blueprint that then yielded three consecutive playoff appearances in 2016-18.

But football is a business where the names and faces change frequently, and as we dive into the next chapter in our annual positional-preview series with an examination of the state of the offensive line, it starts with a farewell to both Goossen and Chungh.

Goossen, coming off a superb season in which he was named a Canadian Football League all-star, retired at just 26 to join the Delta Police Department. Chungh, meanwhile, parlayed his success with the Bombers into a lucrative contract with his hometown B.C. Lions.

Their departures shake up what had been such a constant for the Bombers over the last few years, as they were part of an offensive line that was critical in the consecutive rushing titles captured by Andrew Harris and to an offence that led the league in scoring in 2018 and finished second in 2017.

Yet, there has hardly been a sense of panic in Bomberland since those two mainstays exited – and with good reason. The O-line still features Stanley Bryant at left tackle – the first man to repeat as the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in a decade – and Jermarcus Hardrick, who has morphed into a tour de force flanking the right side. The underrated Patrick Neufeld is a lock at left guard, and in import Manase Foketi, the team believes they have a player capable to stepping in and starting at either tackle or guard.

Then there’s the collection of Canadian talent that has been assembled in the years since Goossen and Chungh were drafted. There is Michael Couture, who has been ripening for three years and is the front runner to replace Goossen at centre. There is 2017 first-round draft pick Geoff Gray, the Manitoba product, who came home last year after stints with the Green Bay Packers, the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns and is an option for Chungh’s old spot at right guard.

There is Cody Speller, the undrafted McMaster product who made his CFL debut late last year and just kept getting better with every rep at practice.

There are 2018 draft picks Matthew Ouellet De Carlo and Ben Koczwara and this year’s selections – first rounder Drew Desjarlais and Asotui Eli, selected in the fourth round and a potential mid-round steal after twice being nominated for the Rimington Award as the best centre in college football before a knee injury last season.

All of this isn’t to say that losing Goossen and Chungh won’t have an impact. But with three starters from last year still pushing the pile, with four others who were here for all of last year itching for regular work and four draft picks from the last two years now in the mix, there are pieces here to reconfigure a solid until under the tutelage of O-line coach Marty Costello.

There is an unknown, certainly, but also a sense that the doubters and cynics may soon be backing away from the panic button.


A LOOK AT THE OFFENSIVE LINE

The Returnees:

Tackles: Stanley Bryant, Jermarcus Hardrick, Manase Foketi
Guards: Patrick Neufeld*, Geoff Gray*, Matthew Ouellet De Carlo* (2018 CFL Draft pick who attended camp last year before returning to school), Ben Koczwara* (2018 CFL Draft pick who also attended camp last year before returning to school)
Centres: Michael Couture*, Cody Speller*
CFL free agent additions: none
CFL newcomers: Delroy Baker, Jr., Chauncey Briggs, Kendall Calhoun.
2019 CFL Draft picks: Drew Desjarlais (1st round, 4th overall), Asotui Eli (4th round, 34thoverall).
Departed: Matthias Goossen (retired), Sukh Chungh (B.C.)

*Indicates Canadian

IMPACT NEWCOMER(S)

Drew Desjarlais/Asotui Eli

It’s doubtful Desjarlais and Eli could be ‘impact’ newcomers in 2019 in the same way Chungh was as a rookie starter from the first moment he arrived here. But they could be impactful the same way Goossen was early in his career when he was groomed for a chunk of his first season under Dominic Picard before stepping in and manning the middle.

Desjarlais has flashed enough skill to get rookie camp looks from the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets. Eli, meanwhile, was thought to have been done with football after a knee injury last year. If he gets back to the form that made him one of the best centres in the NCAA, the Bombers may have found a mid-round gem.

X FACTOR

Michael Couture

He’s been part of the O-line crew for three years after being drafted 10th overall in 2016 and has suited up for every game since. But it’s one thing to take the odd snap during a game, it’s another entirely to step in at centre and try to become a fixture there. He’ll be pushed by Speller and eventually Eli, but has a glorious opportunity here to open the season the middle.

NOTABLE NUMBER | 36.33

The average number of sacks the Bombers have surrendered over the last three years – 36 last year, 38 in 2017 and 35 in 2016. And why do we trot out all those numbers? Consider this: in 2015 alone the Bombers surrendered a whopping 71 sacks.