January 9, 2021

First & 10 | A slew of signings

Jackson Jeffcoat (94) 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 have been announcing player signings repeatedly this week, the news releases spilling out like luggage on a baggage carousel to fans eagerly awaiting their arrival .

It was Jermarcus Hardrick and Sean McGuire last week, followed by Jake Thomas, Stanley Bryant, Nic Demski, Thiadric Hansen, Mike Miller, Nick Taylor, Mercy Maston, Shayne Gauthier, Geoff Gray, Tobi Antigha and Jackson Jeffcoat.

There’s a hint more are to come soon in advance of next month’s free agent deadline as the Bombers look to repeat on their 2019 Grey Cup championship.

All of the signings are critical in their own way, but let’s open our inaugural First & 10 column of the new calendar year by rewinding a few days to the signing of Bryant, the Bombers dominant left tackle.

It was in our story trumpeting his return that we suggested Bryant should rank right there beside Chris Walby as the greatest lineman in Bombers history. That alone means he also ranks as one of the best in Canadian Football League history.

That’s a conversation topic that isn’t new, but it did have us wondering what the legend himself might say about Bryant.

“He’s as good as I’ve ever seen,” said Walby when contacted earlier this week. “There’s his consistency and playing the left tackle spot, which protects the blind-side of a right-handed quarterback, is always tough.

“I watch him in games and you don’t notice him, which is a good thing, because he’s very rarely getting beat. He understands the game so well and he’s had a stabilizing effect on that offensive line. He seems to be a quiet guy, but I really believe Stanley has this inner drive where he wants to be the best.”

Consider this, then, as the next part of this discussion: Walby was twice named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman (1987, 1993) and was a finalist in two other years. He was a nine-time CFL All-Star and was also named the Bombers’ Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman nine times.

Bryant, by comparison, has also won the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman honours (2017, 2018) and was a finalist in 2019. He is a five time CFL All-Star and has been named his team’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman six times – four times here in Winnipeg and twice with the Calgary Stampeders.

“I just love how he carries himself and that’s huge in how the younger guys look at him,” said Walby. “As far as I’m concerned, he should have won the award for a third straight time in 2019 (he fell two votes shy of Hamilton’s Chris Van Zeyl). Sometimes we almost take him for granted. It’s like people look at him and say, ‘Ahh, that’s just Stanley. He’s solid.’ We need to realize how lucky we are to have a guy who is the best to have played in a lot of years playing for our club.

“No disrespect to Van Zeyl, but in my mind there’s no better lineman in the CFL right now, regardless of position, than Stanley. I don’t like it when voters try to spread the wealth. He’s the best and if a guy is that good year in and year out then, God bless him, he should be recognized with the award year in and year out.

“Here’s the scary thing: I actually think he may get better,” added Walby. “He’s only 34 and he’s played 10 years. When I was 34 I had played for 10 years. I played till 40. He could play till 40. They called me ‘Bluto’ when I played (after the bully in the old Popeye cartoon). Well, I call Stanley ‘The Beast.’”

More from a busy week in Bomberland in this week’s edition of ‘First & 10’…

1. It was around the Christmas holidays when a number of fans reached out with concerns about why the Bombers had been so quiet in terms of attacking their pending free agent list, which had opened with 34 names on it.

Well, the last week or so has seen 13 players come off that group by signing. There are still some big names on that list to get done, but it might be time to unlock that fist and pull it away from the panic button. Of the remaining unsigned pending free agents are kicker Justin Medlock and starters Andrew Harris, Brandon Alexander, Rasheed Bailey, Kenny Lawler, Paddy Neufeld, Steven Richardson and Kyrie Wilson, along with players who also started games in Lucky Whitehead and Cody Speller.

The entire list can be found here:

2. Over the last few days has conducted interviews with Hardrick, McGuire, Thomas, Bryant, Hansen, Demski, Miller, Taylor and Jeffcoat.

A common theme that has emerged, not surprisingly, and will likely continue into next month: a number of players are eager to take a shot becoming the first team to repeat as Grey Cup champs since the 2009-10 Montreal Alouettes.

“I think a lot of guys want that chance to be able to defend that championship that we got back in 2019,” said Bryant on his media call earlier this week. “A lot of guys will be hungry, a lot of guys will be eager just to get back to a great group of guys. We have a great, tight locker room and we made history, so why not come back and try to do the same thing?”

3. One more on that subject from Jeffcoat, coming Friday when he was asked why so many players have re-signed over the last week or so.

“We’re a tight-knit bunch,” he said. “We played well together and wanted to play again together and get number two, back-to-back. That was the goal for us and a lot of us have been talking about that.

“And you’ve got to look at Coach O’Shea, Coach Hall… our head coach and our coordinators, the organization, the city of Winnipeg. People love Winnipeg. People love being there. People love being in the organization and it shows. Guys want to be back. Guys are taken care of in Winnipeg and so it a no brainer to come back. When they offered me the deal, I came back.”

4. A couple of notes about Nic Demski, who signed a two-year extension this week…

First, here’s Demski on the chemistry he developed with Zach Collaros in the quarterback’s four starts at the end of 2019.

“I love playing with Zach,” said Demski. “As soon as he came in he and I were on the same page. That says a lot right there. The way he came in and led our team… he’s just one of those guys who comes into your locker room and he’s an instant leader. He doesn’t have to say much. His presence is known.

“I really liked playing with Zach. I talked to him (Tuesday) and we’re definitely excited to get back on the field together.”

For the record, in the four games the two played together Demski had 13 receptions for 170 yards.

5. And further to Demski, the local product and Manitoba Bisons alum…

Dating back to 1951, five different Canadian Bombers receivers have combined to post 11 1,000-yard seasons – Joe Poplawski and Gerald Wilcox did it three times, Ken Nielsen and Rick House twice and Bob LaRose once.

But it’s been 25 years and 24 seasons – since Wilcox posted a 1,024-yard campaign in 1995 – that a Canadian has eclipsed the 1K mark.

Demski had 554 yards receiving in 2018 and 543 a year later. He also gets the occasional touch out of the backfield as a ball carrier. But could he be the next Canadian to hit 1K receiving?

6. It was good to chat with Thiadric Hansen this week on the day his contract extension was announced. Hansen was able to get games in during 2020, winning a Polish league championship with the Wroclaw Panthers.

CFL teams will be required to have two Global players on their active rosters in 2021 and so I asked Hansen if he might be able to help the Bombers with some scouting reports on the guys he played with and against last fall.

“If they ask me, yes, I can maybe help – especially if they ask about German players,” said Hansen, who is from Flensburg, Germany. “Poland isn’t part of the Global agreement yet and it’s hard to say who might be able to make the transition to the CFL. There are a lot of players who are good in the GFL (German league) but they might not be successful in the CFL because they maybe can’t handle the pressure.

“It was difficult for me to go from a starter and one of the best guys on my team to a guy who had to learn everything again. That can be a hard pill to swallow when you’re not the top dog anymore, and don’t have a line on a starting job. You never know how people handle those situations and you see it all the time when guys go from college to the pros. Some don’t perform well and then there are guys who weren’t big names in college but all of a sudden perform well in the NFL or CFL.”

7. Some thought-provoking comments from Jackson during his availability on Friday about the riots in Washington, D.C. this week. Asked what his reaction was to seeing that, he offered this:

“Is this really happening in the United States of America? It’s mind-blowing that people were so against people fighting for equality or for justice because of injustices and they wanted to compare Black people fighting for that and Black people being killed to men and women being upset about an election.

“It just blows my mind there are comparisons there. At one side people are fighting for their lives because they’re not being treated fairly. On the other side people are upset about an election which, no matter which way you go in politics, it’s still politics. I don’t know why people are so upset about it.

“I shouldn’t say it blows my mind,” he added later. “I’ve lived in this country and lived long enough to understand what’s going on. I’m not going to get into all that. We understand. As Black Americans we understand where we stand and what people think about us and we’re going to continue to work for change, continue to work for equality.”

8. One of the truly good dudes in the Bombers locker room is fullback Mike Miller. He’s a hard-hat and lunch-pail guy who has carved out an excellent career in the CFL.

We spoke earlier in the week and he said, like so many others, that while he is missing the game desperately, it’s not being around his teammates that he craves the most.

“People say playing football is almost an extension of being in university… without having to go to class,” said Miller with a chuckle. “You don’t really have to grow up. But this whole offseason you did have to grow up and do other things.

“I definitely miss being around the guys and seeing them every day. So many guys would get there early just to have chats around the room or in the hot tub or weight room or in those times between meetings or at practice. I miss the laughs and the clowning around. There’s not many jobs where that kind of stuff goes on.

“We’ve got such a good group of guys in the locker room and it’s been like that for years. It’s certainly been like that since I’ve been in Winnipeg. We have a good team and it does feel like we could have repeated if we had had a 2020 season. Everybody’s just hungry to get back on the field.”

9. Miller, FYI, has been doing some handiwork and odd jobs around Riverview, NB, his hometown, during the last year. He’s still working out diligently, as he has always done, and plays for a beer-league hockey team – the Vikings – with some lifelong friends in the Atlantic Adult Hockey League in Moncton.

“It’s been good to get that competitive aspect a little bit,” he said. “It’s been nice to get out and skate with them. We’re having a little bit of a rough go of it this winter, but we’re doing OK.”

10. And, finally, let’s end with one more from Jeffcoat along the same lines as to what Miller said he missed while being away from the game.

“Man, I missed hanging out with the guys, being able to chat, talk crap, work out together, have meals together and then just all working for a common goal and have others on your side know what you’re going through,” said Jeffcoat. “They’re sore just like you’re sore. They’ve been through how many games we’ve gone through just like you have.

“I miss being together with my guys.”