Mike O'Shea during Winnipeg Blue Bombers rookie camp Wednesday May 15, 2019.
The clock is ticking. Check that… it isn’t just ticking, it’s clanging loudly and clearly like a three-alarm fire bell.
The veteran Winnipeg Blue Bombers returning for the opening of main training camp on Sunday all know they’ve posted the second-best record in the Canadian Football League over the last three years to the Calgary Stampeders and have made three straight playoff appearances.
Yet, those final moments in the West Final loss to Calgary still resonate, still burn as unfinished business. And yes, they are all well aware they are part of the longest championship drought in franchise history.
Yet, hope also always springs eternal on the eve of the opening of training camp. It’s a fresh start, a clean slate, and with so many familiar faces returning, there’s also a heightened sense of expectation both inside and outside the locker room.
“Just seeing the guys staring to filter in here gets you fired up,” began Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols Friday, during a break surveying the last day of rookie camp. “During the offseason it always feels like it’s forever away and then all of a sudden you blink your eyes and you’re full-go here in a couple of days.
“It’s always one of the most exciting times of the year when football is back. It should be a heavy presence of vets pouring in now in the next day or two. It’s great to catch up with everyone. For us, we have a large group of core guys that are back and it will also be great to pick up where we left off with those guys.”
The Bombers took some hits in free agency in the offseason, but also added some key pieces, too. And in a West Division that has undergone a massive makeover (but should still be deadly competitive), there is a hope that continuity could serve the Bombers well.
“We’ve kept the core group together for a number of years now, which is hard to do in this day and age,” said Nichols. “We’ve taken steps. We went from not being very good here for a few years, to going to a playoff game, to hosting one and winning one. We feel like we’ve taken steps every year. Sometimes those are necessary things to get where you want to be and we feel like this is that year that we take that next step and reach our ultimate goal.”
The first official steps toward that begin Sunday morning. And with that as the backdrop, here is our guide to the Bombers 2019 main camp…
Starters from the 2018 West Final returning to camp:
Offence (8): QB Matt Nichols, RB Andrew Harris, WR Darvin Adams, SB Nic Demski, WR Drew Wolitarsky, LT Stanley Bryant, LG Patrick Neufeld, RT Jermarcus Hardrick
Defence (9): DE Jackson Jeffcoat, DT Drake Nevis, DT Brandin Bryant, LB Adam Bighill, LB Anthony Gaitor, LB Kyrie Wilson, DB Brandon Alexander, DB Marcus Sayles, DE Craig Roh
Specialists: K Justin Medlock, LS Chad Rempel
Other returnees: QB Chris Streveler, QB Bryan Bennett, FB Mike Miller, FB John Rush, SB Daniel Petermann, WR/KR Charles Nelson, WR Rashaun Simonise, OL Michael Couture, DT Jake Thomas, LB Chandler Fenner, LB Thomas Miles, LB Shayne Gauthier, LB Jesse Briggs, LB Kyrie Wilson, DB Abu Conteh, S Jeff Hecht.
Injured list at season’s end and returning: SB Kenbrell Thompkins, WR Corey Washington, CB Chris Humes, OL Cody Speller, OL Geoff Gray, S Derek Jones, OL Manase Foketi
Practice roster at season’s end and returning: RB Johnny Augustine, DB Tyneil Cooper, DB Jacob Firlotte, DE Patrick Choudja
EXITED, STAGE LEFT
Players who dressed for last year’s playoff games, but have since departed:
Offence: C Matthias Goossen (retired), RG Sukh Chungh (B.C.), SB Weston Dressler (unsigned), RB Kienan LaFrance (Saskatchewan), WR Ryan Lankford (Ottawa).
Defence: CB Chris Randle (Ottawa), CB Kevin Fogg (Toronto), S Taylor Loffler (Montreal), DB Brendan Morgan (unsigned), LB Ian Wild (Toronto), LB Frederic Plesius (unsigned), DE Tristan Okpalaugo (unsigned).
Injured at season’s end and now departed: LB Jovan Santos-Knox (Edmonton), LB Maurice Leggett (unsigned), LB Frank Renaud (unsigned), DE Trent Corney (retired)
Practice roster at season’s end and now departed: RB Timothy Flanders (unsigned), DE Gerald Rivers (unsigned), OL Qadr Spooner (Edmonton).
3 KEY VETERAN ADDITIONS
#5 Willie Jefferson, DE: The most disruptive defensive force in the entire league joins a Bombers defence that features the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in Adam Bighill.
#80 Chris Matthews, WR: A big target for Matt Nichols at 6-5, 230 and is another weapon for the CFL’s highest-scoring offence.
#30 Winston Rose, CB: Joins his fourth CFL team after a stint on Toronto’s practice roster in 2017, four games with Ottawa in 2017 and then 19 games with B.C. last season, including playoffs, with 18 starts.
KEY CAMP BATTLES
Field corner/boundary corner
The incumbent: left vacant by the exits of Chris Randle (Ottawa) and Kevin Fogg (Toronto).
The challengers: Chris Humes and Winston Rose are the leading candidates to replace, but there is a long list of others who first shone at the free-agent camp in Florida and then in rookie camp, including Joe Este, Christian Boutte, Mike Jones, Marcus Rios, Elijah Battle and Amari Coleman, along with Tyneil Cooper, who dressed for five games last year, making three starts.
The incumbent: left vacant with the retirement of Matthias Goossen.
The challengers: Michael Couture, Cody Speller, Tui Eli, Matthew Ouellet De Carlo. Couture and Speller are the front runners, having been groomed for the position over the last few years. Eli is a 2019 draft pick who, if he can regain his form from his days at Hawaii, may also eventually become a contender.
The incumbent: vacant with the departure of Sukh Chungh (B.C.)
The challengers: Geoff Gray, Drew Desjarlais, Manase Foketi, Ben Koczwara, Matthew Ouellet De Carlo. The Bombers could opt to use three imports up front, with Foketi the leading candidate there, but the collection of Canadians – including Gray, a 2016 first-round pick, and Desjarlais, a 2019 first rounder – gives the club some intriguing options to keep it a homegrown spot.
The incumbent: vacant after Taylor Loffler left in free agency for Montreal.
The challengers: Derek Jones, Jeff Hecht, Dexter Janke, Abu Conteh, Nick Hallett, Kerfalla Exume, Payton Hall. Most figure this is Jones’ job to lose, as the coaches have long raved about his athletic tool box. The veteran Hecht is an interesting option, as he consistently makes plays wherever he lines up on defence.
The incumbent: this is the old spot of Jovan Santos-Knox, who signed with Edmonton as a free agent this winter.
The challengers: Kyrie Wilson, Nick Temple, Jesse Briggs, Jacob Firlotte. Essentially a two-man race between Wilson and Temple. Wilson has the inside track, having filled in for Santos-Knox when the latter was injured during last year’s playoff run.
Kick returner/Punt returner
The incumbents: both Kevin Fogg (Toronto) and Ryan Lankford (Ottawa) left in free agency.
The challengers: Lucky Whitehead, Charles Nelson, Nic Demski, Tyneil Cooper, Tim Wilson. Nelson flashed some skill last year and Demski was second to Fogg in punt-return yardage last year. Whitehead has already made a solid impression through the Florida camp and three days of rookie camp.
(All practices are at IG Field and open to the public)
Sunday, May 19 – OPENING DAY OF TRAINING CAMP
Practice: 10-11:55 a.m.
Monday, May 20
Practice: 8:30-11:55 a.m.
Tuesday, May 21
Practice: 8:30 a.m.-12:20 p.m.
Wednesday, May 22
Practice: 8:30 a.m.-12:20 p.m.
Thursday, May 23
Practice: 9-11:50 a.m.