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June 10, 2019

“I like our overall roster.” | GM Kyle Walters

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Vs. Edmonton Eskimos at IG Field Friday May 31, 2019

The nasty business that is roster cutdown day is now fading in the rearview mirror, and up ahead looming on the horizon is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 2019 season opener in Vancouver.

The ’19 edition of the Bombers will begin to be evaluated against the B.C. Lions Saturday night, but ultimately judged by what they get done in November. That’s a lot of road yet to travel, but as the Bombers begin preparations for the Leos on Tuesday, GM Kyle Walters spoke to the media Monday afternoon in a 19-minute session that touched on a variety of subjects.

Here are 10 takeaways, in no particular order, on some of the juicier Walters soundbites…

1. THE SIMONISE DECISION

Among the weekend cut eyebrow raisers was the release of wide receiver Rashaun Simonise – the club’s first pick, 12th overall, in the 2018 CFL Draft.

It seems Simonise was impacted by a couple of factors: he was behind Drew Wolitarsky and Nic Demski on the Canadian receiver depth chart, and indirectly, was a victim of the Bombers deep crew of receivers and overall Canadian roster flexibility.

“We drafted him, we liked him,” said Walters. “Huge athletic upside and we knew there was going to be some limitations or some concerns about how he was going to fit in with regards to the offence and grow within it. I thought he made some improvements and had a solid camp and worked hard. But, just at the end of the day he was the fourth of the four Canadians behind Drew and Nic, and Daniel Petermann had a strong camp.

“We asked him to stick around on the practice roster, but he chose not to. It’s as simple as it’s a competition and he was the fourth of the four. Unfortunately that’s the way it shook down. I think he’s still got a big upside down the road if he can find himself the right system and continue to grow, I think Rashaun still has a bright future in our league and I wish him the best.”

2. PERHAPS RELATED TO THE ABOVE

If the Bombers want to look for more Canadian receiver depth, former University of Manitoba star Anthony Coombs – a running back/slotback – was released on the weekend by the Toronto Argonauts.

“That’s what we’re doing now, Ted (Goveia), Danny (McManus), Ryan (Rigmaiden) and myself. The coaches are busy focusing on B.C., but you go through that status report (Sunday) and start figuring out who can fit in and where do they fit in. That’s a name on the list with a lot of other guys we’re certainly looking at to see if they can fit in and upgrade the roster.”

3. McGUIRE VS. BENNETT

One of the other roster decisions that drew attention on the weekend was the decision to keep rookie quarterback Sean McGuire over veteran Bryan Bennett. McGuire is 23 and Bennett is 27 and that was a factor. Walters also admitted this was one of the tougher moves, as Bennett had a good camp and was a popular and versatile player on special teams, serving as both a holder and on the kick-cover units.

“Matt (Nichols) is our No. 1,” said Walters. “Chris (Streveler) is another young, developing quarterback but with his unique skillset within our offence, he was certainly a leg above the other guys. Bryan and Sean had good training camps, we just decided to go with the younger guy, but it was a real difficult decision because Bryan showed real improvement and growth.”

4. CAMP SURPRISES

Asked to list some of the new faces who jumped off the page in camp, Walters referenced the young Canadian offensive linemen who benefitted from a lot of reps in Drew Desjarlais, Geoff Gray, Cody Speller and Michael Couture (who will start at centre). He also offered this:

“Kenny Lawler had a great camp. Lucky Whitehead had a great camp. Charles Nelson showed explosion, but had that little ankle injury late in camp. (Defensive tackle) Steve Richardson and our young draft picks – (Kerfalla) Exumé and (Nick) Hallett showed special teams coaches they can get out there and be trusted to play.”

5. THE COLLECTION OF PASS CATCHERS

The Bombers made no secret of their desire to add to their receiving corps dating as far back as Walters’ post-season press conference last December. They chased some big names in free agency, added Chris Matthews in late spring and unearthed a fine group of newcomers in Kenny Lawler (who joined the practice roster last year), Lucky Whitehead, Rasheed Bailey and Kenny Walker.

“We have a nice group of varying skillsets,” said Walters. “We’ve got some size, we kept some smaller guys this year with return ability that you’ve seen are more explosive. And you saw a couple of them in the (Saskatchewan) game that made real explosive plays. Then you’ve got betweener guys that don’t have the size of a Chris Matthews or the speed of Lucky or Chris (Nelson), but they’re precision route runners.

“(Offensive coordinator) Paul (LaPolice) and the offensive staff have a wide variety of skill sets to choose from and that’s what we wanted to give them and piece together as the offence sorts itself and gets an identity… we wanted to give him to have a bunch of different pieces with regards to skillsets to pick from.”

6. A GLOBAL INFLUENCE

The Bombers, like all CFL teams, are now part of the CFL 2.0 initiative that has introduced a new ‘global’ player to the roster. Previously, CFL teams rosters featured 44 active and two reserve players. Now the rosters feature 45 active players – including a global player – and one player on the reserve list.

The Bombers’ global player will be German Thiadric Hansen, a 26-year-old, 6-2/243-pound linebacker.

“Thiadric had a great camp,” Walters said. “He’s big and he’s strong. He’s physical, he’s tough and he loves it. (Training camp) was very taxing on the global players. They had not been through anything like this physically from a football standpoint. All of them were pretty beat up, but they’re tough and they love it. He looked solid. He made some plays on special teams and did not look out of place. I’m excited to see his growth. He takes to coaching really well and he takes it really serious and he loves it.

“I’m happy for him and he’s excited and he’s going to help us on special teams.”

The Bombers have two other global players on their practice roster in defensive back Sergio Schiaffino-Perez and linebacker Manuel Hernandez-Reyes, who is currently injured.

7. A STOUT FRONT

When asked to list the strengths of this group, Walters began with the defensive line that features free agent prize Willie Jefferson, returning vets Jackson Jeffcoat, Craig Roh, Drake Nevis and Jake Thomas, draft picks Jonathan Kongbo and Connor Griffiths, and newcomers Steven Richardson and Patrick Choudja.

That’s part of a crew that should be solid up the middle defensively.

“I like our overall roster,” Walters said. “I think our D-line is solid and experienced with a strong group in there on the inside and the outside. Brandin Bryant is a really good football player who started for us last year and unfortunately for him was beaten out by Steven Richardson for that job. We’re experienced and physical and tough. I’m excited to see them play.

“Our interior with the front six and our defensive line with Adam (Bighill) and Kyrie Wilson showed the growth we hoped for somebody in our system for three years. He’s super athletic and a little bit different compliment to Adam’s skillset.

“Our interior guys with (Marcus) Sayles, and B.A. (Brandon Alexander) and (Anthony) Gaitor and I think the defensive coaches trying Chandler Fenner at the field corner was a great thought process and he got some valuable reps throughout training camp. I think you’re going to see him bring an intensity to the field corner and still play special teams at a high level.”

8. THE INTERIOR OF THE O-LINE QUESTION

With Couture slotted in at centre, the Bombers still have yet to determine who will play right guard and whether veteran left guard Pat Neufeld will be good to go for Saturday in Vancouver.

Walters said the battle between the crew pushing for work this week could continue well into the season.

“The nice thing for that group of guys who are all pretty even on the inside is week to week the competition within that group… if you don’t play to the position the coaches expect you to, there’s a guy right on your heels,” he said. “The interior guys, the Canadians, don’t have the experience that we’re used to, but I think unlike prior years there’s going to be competition every single week to perform at the highest level or there’s going to be someone waiting in the wings.”

9. DON’T GO THERE…

Asked a follow-up about Neufeld being ready for the opener and whether injures impacted the ability to make roster decisions, Walters grinned and added.

“No. 1, Mike (O’Shea) would probably punch me in the face if I gave any indication of Pat Neufeld’s availability. So, I’ll decline to answer that one. No. 2, it was a benefit, the young guys got a ton of reps inside for evaluation just because of the number of bodies in training camp. And they took advantage of it.”

10. THE QUEST STARTS IN 3…2…1

The Bombers’ pursuit of their first championship since 1990 begins Saturday. Walters indirectly referenced a loss in B.C. last year – the Bombers held a 17-0 lead before falling 20-17 – and a 33-30 loss to Edmonton as critical early-season setbacks.

“It starts in B.C. I’ve said this before… in the West you just can’t afford early in the season to have a couple slip-ups,” he said. “We went through that last year where in the first half of the year there were probably two or three games you look back on and we were in the position to win those and we didn’t. And when you say that in the West, you’re not winning the West.

“Recent history suggests if you’re not winning 12-13 games you’re not winning the West and in order to win the Grey Cup, history shows you really should be hosting that Western Final to give yourself the best chance. So, it’s imperative we start off strong and win the close games in the summer that we didn’t win last summer, those coin-flip games that could go either way that we ended up on the wrong side of last year.”