The first week of Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp has been a bit like settling in to watch a movie you’ve seen before. Make that, three-four times before.
A team with championship aspirations that returns so much of its roster from a squad that went 15-3 last year and is chasing a fourth Grey Cup appearance and third championship over four years wasn’t going to head to camp with a pile of riveting positional battles or a swack of new faces as part of a roster or coaching staff makeover.
So, ‘continuity’ is a common term tossed around on Chancellor Matheson Road these days and it will be through the two preseason games – including the first one this Saturday in Edmonton against the Elks – leading up to the season opener at home versus the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on June 9th.
“Continuity means we’re speaking the same language, not just the terminology with the offence, but understanding what our expectations are and how we want to approach every single day, whether it’s the meetings or on the field,” said quarterback Zach Collaros after practice on Sunday. “It’s the language in the organization.
“It helps with the overall timing of things. Even with Kenny (Lawler) being gone for a year, it didn’t take much to get back into a rhythm with him because he runs such precise routes and has such great body language.
“I’m just really excited for the season. We have a lot we can accomplish in this camp and need to get better at. We’ll do that, but I can’t wait until the 9th.”
One week into camp, here’s what we’ve learned, what we’ve had confirmed and what is still to be determined…
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
The Blue Bombers scouting staff knows how to unearth and deliver defensive backs. The team’s bird dogs have discovered stars like Brandon Alexander, Deatrick Nichols and Dee Alford (now with Atlanta) in years past and found a couple of potential gems last year in Jamal Parker and Evan Holm.
Couple them with players like Desmond Lawrence, Alden Darby, Jr., Winston Rose, Demerio Houston and newcomers like Matt Cole, Abu Daramy-Swaray, Keyshawn Gaskin and Canadian vets like Nick Hallett and Redha Kramdi, and the club has a ton of options in their secondary.
They’ll need them, if the past is any indication – last year the defence saw 15 players start in the secondary as part of eight different combinations in the air defence.
There could be some gold in the team’s 2023 Draft Class. First-round pick Anthony Bennett, a defensive end, picked off a pass in Sunday’s session and raced to the end zone, eliciting some oohs and aahs from a good-sized crowd in attendance. Defensive backs Jake Kelly and Bret MacDougall have flashed their athleticism, as has receiver Jeremy Murphy, while defensive tackles Tanner Schmekel, Collin Kornelson and linebacker Max Charbonneau are slugging it out on defence. Only running back Jonathan Rosery, a seventh-round pick who has been injured, has yet to get some significant work in during camp.
WHAT WE’VE HAD CONFIRMED
This is hardly a newsflash, but the receiving corps has the potential to be really, really good. And by ‘really, really good’, we mean potentially one of the best in franchise history. Go ahead and label that hyperbole because, for now, it certainly is and it’s something we broached last month, FYI.
Still, it’s worth noting that Kenny Lawler has been tearing it up during training camp and his return through free agency only adds to a crew that already includes CFL Most Outstanding Rookie Dalton Schoen, Nic Demski and Rasheed Bailey – both coming off career seasons – and the always-reliable Drew Wolitarsky. Carlton Agudosi has been dominant in camp as well and finding room in the lineup or the roster for a talent like him or Brendan O’Leary-Orange – along with a handful of others stepping up in camp – falls into the damn-fine-problem-to-have category.
“All the potential we have here, it really is exciting,” said Demski. “Training camp is about meshing again, but when we get into that room again and start doing this for real… I can’t wait for that.”
There’s been so much chatter – especially from outside of Manitoba – about the Blue Bombers aging roster, with many fingers pointed at veteran offensive tackles Stanley Bryant (37), Jermarcus Hardrick (32) and guard Pat Neufeld (34), all starters.
That trio is still grinding and eager to cram it down the throats of critics, but there is some younger talent along the offensive line that speaks of an eventual succession plan. That group features Canadians Tui Eli and Liam Dobson, both of whom have starts to their name, along with Jacob Szott, converted defensive tackle Cole Adamson and Global vet Tomoya Machino. The team is also intrigued by the collection of import tackles in camp that includes Drew Richmond, who is 27, along with Desmond Bessent (25), Chris Ivy (25) and Kelvin Ateman (24).
WHAT’S STILL TO BE DETERMINED
The Blue Bombers’ kicking situation was going to be a compelling storyline – perhaps THE compelling storyline – when camp opened. And even with the team scooping up veteran placekicker Sergio Castillo after he was cut by Edmonton, nothing is etched in stone.
Incumbent Marc Liegghio handles all three chores – placekicking, kickoffs, and punting – while Castillo and Chandler Staton placekick only. Don’t sleep on Staton, who has been robotically hitting kicks in camp.
The punting battle features Liegghio and the two 2023 Global Draft picks – Jamieson Sheahan and Karl Schmitz, both of whom have big legs and a knack for pounding punts to specific areas.
As much as they can impress in camp sessions, the kicking jobs will be based much on what happens this weekend in Edmonton and in the final preseason tune-up against Saskatchewan on June 2nd.
“It’s really going to carry through all the way to those two preseason games,” said O’Shea of the kicker evaluation process. “You want to be careful not to jump to any conclusions until you see them play against somebody else.
“There will be a heavier weight to the game action. It’s nice to formulate a picture right now about what you see and hopefully confirm the pictures against another opponent when the rush is a little more chaotic in front of you and there’s a little bit more pressure, let’s say.”
Collaros and Dru Brown are locks at 1-2 on the QB depth chart, leaving two straight-from-college prospects in Tyrrell Pigrome (Towson State) and Josh Jones (UNC-Pembrooke) to battle it out for the third-string gig. Based on recent history, they’ll get some work operating the third-down/short yardage package in Buck Pierce’s offence, just as Dakota Prukop, Sean McGuire and Chris Streveler did before them.
We mentioned the many options in the secondary and the need for depth there, but who starts where when the curtain opens on the regular season will be worth tracking. Parker and Holm, for example, have shown significant progress in their second camps, while a healthy Houston could play across the secondary.
Finally, there have been many portions during the daily camp sessions that would look like a practice in September and October – crisp, clean with very few assignment mistakes. That speaks, again, of the continuity, and of the possibility of the club hitting the ground running when the seasons starts.
“That’s the quote right there – ‘hit the ground running,’” said Demski. “We know we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves and we’ve still got a lot of things we have to make sure we’re on the same page with, but when you are ahead of the curve you do hit the ground running. And, hopefully in our case, then there’s no looking back.”