EDMONTON – Overheard during Winnipeg Blue Bombers earlier this week during training camp, moments after Evan Holm shadowed a receiver step for step on a long throw before leaping and snatching the pass out of the sky for an interception:
“He’s been doing that every day,” said the player, one of a handful of prospects currently injured and watching practice. “That dude has been my MVP of camp.”
Told of that assessment, Holm shrugged his shoulders and said: “There’s been some good things, some bad things. Made some plays, made some mistakes. I’ll just say I’m in good shape and having fun and I love competing with Dalton (Schoen), Kenny (Lawler), with (Nic) Demski, Sheed (Rasheed Bailey)… we have a bunch of guys who can play so that helps you level up every day when you’re going against some dudes, guys who have proved themselves in the league. It’s only going to help you get better.
“We’ve got a great group of DBs and lots of vets and we’ve all been having a pretty good camp, if you ask me.”
That answer might just best describe Holm, a soft-spoken humble sort who looks like an actuary in civilian clothes, but in his football gear he managed to flash so much last year after being parachuted into camp late. Ask to pump his own tires and he’ll deflect the attention elsewhere. Ask him to play anywhere in the secondary and be a kick-return candidate and he’ll have his arm raised to volunteer in a flash.
The University of North Dakota product by way of Edina, Minnesota ended up appearing in nine games last year, with four of them starts, as the Blue Bombers secondary was ravaged by injuries. The club started 15 different players in the air defence last year over the six positions – two corners, two halfbacks, one safety and one Dime. Holm worked at three different positions, and returned kicks.
Now with that rookie campaign in the rearview mirror and an offseason spent with more focus on reactionary running, Holm has popped out during camp while looking much more at ease.
“I’m a lot more comfortable,” he said. “Last year I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t even know the rules of the CFL game, so there was pressure from that standpoint. But it’s a lot more comfortable when you know the system and where I can fit. That’s helped me focus on some different things where last year I was just trying to get the plays down and make sure my assignments were right. Now I can focus on my technique and making plays.
“I do like to focus on the good plays, but I’ll never get too high on myself. There’s a high standard of play here and so just because I made one good play… if I messed up a basic assignment, I’ll focus on that more because that’s what could get you beat late in the year. Good plays are good, but I think you always need to be hard on yourself to get better.”
Holm drew praise from head coach Mike O’Shea earlier in the week for his footwork – “As good of feet as you’ll ever see on a DB” – and then a couple of days ago for how conscientious and versatile he is in learning and adapting.
Holm called his debut CFL season a learning experience, both on the field and managing those weeks when he was on the practice roster. He also said he had moments of self-doubt where he was also contemplating his future after football as a personal trainer and chiropractor – a profession he has already had experience doing as an intern.
“It was a learning experience. I got through it,” he said. “There were some ups and downs. There were times on the practice roster where I didn’t know what was happening and I’d be talking to my wife and saying I’ve just got to keep going and good things will happen because I believe in myself. Opportunities came and I was able to capitalize on them.
“I want to help people in pain and give them the tools to help them get their lives back, whether it was from an injury or chronic pain. Helping people is really big to me.”
A FAN’S GUIDE
Who and what to watch during Saturday’s Blue Bombers-Elks preseason game…
Four QBs have made the trip in Zach Collaros, Dru Brown, Tyrrell Pigrome and Josh Jones. Collaros, the two-time CFL MOP, won’t need much work and Pigrome and Jones are working to fill the short-yardage role as the No. 3 left vacant by the departure of Dakota Prukop to the USFL.
“Any time you get game reps at game speed… we practice pretty fast out here, but it’s different when you’re able to get smacked, right?” said Brown after practice on Thursday. “It’s good to get those live reps. It’s good to see different things on defence than what our defence does because we’re in a good rhythm of what our defence does, and it doesn’t look like that with everyone you face.”
The Kicking Battle
With both Marc Liegghio and Sergio Castillo not making the trip, rookie Chandler Staton will handle all the placekicking chores. Meanwhile, both Global punters – Australian Jamieson Sheahan of Cal-Berkeley and 36-year-old Bermuda product Karl Schmitz – will be in Edmonton.
And with Janarion Grant currently on the suspended list, there will be a window open for other kick-return candidates.
“They’re both very good,” said O’Shea of Sheahan and Schmitz. “They’re both extremely talented, professional. Good guys and both could be a fit. It’s been a fun time watching them. I think we’ve given them a good atmosphere. It’s not been cutthroat. These are good guys. They’re pros. They understand there’s competition, but they’ve just been great to be around.”
What will be interesting to track is how and when the coaching staff evaluates the two punters and under what circumstances. An example:
“We’ve got some competition in that area, so what are you doing on third and short?” O’Shea said. “We’d like to stick with the routine and go for it, or are you kicking because you want to see your kickers? I don’t know how it’s going to unfold. But we certainly need to see our guys in a game situation with the other team rushing hard at us, with different wind, with different environment in the stadium.
“It will be sort of a game-flow time – whether we want to go for it in certain situations: we want to evaluate the quarterbacks, too. We want to evaluate O-linemen. We want to evaluate the tailbacks. We do have to evaluate our punters and kickers, too. I wish I had a better answer for you. It really boils down to a flow of game question and then taking stock at the halfway point to see where we’re at and what we’ve seen so far. If our offence does really well and we don’t have to punt, then we’ll see a kicker probably. If we’re not doing well, then we’ll see our punters extensively. We have to see them all. There’s not a better answer than that.”
THE 2023 DRAFT CLASS WATCH
Five of the team’s eight draft picks from earlier this month are making the trip in DE Anthony Bennett (Rd 1, 8th overall), DB Jake Kelly (Rd 2, 15th overall), WR Jeremy Murphy (Rd 3, 26thoverall), DT Tanner Schmekel (Rd 4, 35th overall) and DT Collin Kornelson (Rd 5, 44th overall). Not travelling are DB Bret MacDougall (Rd 6, 53rd overall) and LB Max Charbonneau (Rd 8, 71st overall). RB Jonathan Rosery, the team’s seventh-round pick who was injured in rookie camp and has not practised, was transferred to the retired list on Thursday afternoon.
Here’s O’Shea on Bennett, the University of Regina product:
“He’s a natural pass rusher. I watched him more closely the other day and his hand placements and his understanding of where offensive linemen are going to put their hands and how he’s already on top of that with his hands… it’s pretty neat to see.”
THE NAVY SEAL
We’ve been asked repeatedly for updates on defensive end/long snapper Damian Jackson since first writing about him in rookie camp.
Jackson continues to showcase his skills as a long snapper while getting work along the D-line. But when Konner Burtenshaw was injured earlier this week, the former Navy SEAL was then also taking reps at fullback. There’s an old saying in football – ‘the more you can do’ – and Jackson is meeting that and then some.
“Damian had asked a couple times prior to that, saying he would do whatever we needed in whatever spot was available he would move around,” said O’Shea. “This was born out of necessity, but in the first couple of days he’s looked pretty good. He’s a very mature, very eager, very likable pro.”