They will be coming en masse, all part of a loud and proud horde from west of here.
And if Tanner Schmekel is any reflection of his mob of relatives heading in from Regina for Friday’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers vs Saskatchewan Roughriders preseason tilt, they will likely arrive in a good mood and with perma-grins that will not be wiped from their collective mugs.
“I’m converting a lot of people from Saskatchewan to the ‘W’ now,” said Schmekel in a chat with bluebombers.com this week. “It’s going to be good. You’re going to see a lot of converted Sask fans here for me. My parents are coming, a bunch of cousins, my brother… there’s going to be a good crowd for me.
“And they’ll be heading to the Bomber Store first. They need to get some gear. Now that I’m wearing blue, I can say it looks better than green.”
Selected in the fourth round, 35th overall, in last month’s CFL Draft, Schmekel has been living a prospect’s dream since the first day of rookie camp. And through every moment of that grind, the 23-year-old Regina product has been smiling.
“The first couple of days especially, every time I ran into him, he just made you have a better day. He’s just having a good time,” said head coach Mike O’Shea earlier this week. “He’s working hard. He’s not oblivious to what’s going on, he’s working hard and trying to get better every day. He enjoys it, and with that kind of attitude, it serves his teammates very well.”
“It’s probably been one of the best experiences of my life – the level of football, the quality of guys, the quality of coaching,” Schmekel added. “In these three weeks I’ve become twice, three times the football player already. It’s such an awesome environment here. I haven’t left Regina my whole life, so it’s nice to get out of there and come to Manitoba for a different experience. I just love it here.”
The Blue Bombers have veteran mainstay Jake Thomas as the starting Canadian defensive tackle, and he split time last year with Cam Lawson after he was acquired in a draft day trade in 2022. The club also added University of Manitoba product Collin Kornelson in the fourth round this year, nine picks after selecting Schmekel.
“When I first got here, I was a little scared, to be honest,” Schmekel said. “You just never really know what you’re coming into with all these big-name guys. I didn’t know how I was going to be treated, but no one has treated me less than – everyone is equal in this locker room and all working to a common goal. I love the culture here. It’s what I’m about. It’s awesome.
“It’s the group of D-linemen I’m with and the coaches that has made it so special. This D-line is if not the best, one of the best groups in the CFL. Just learning from guys like Willie and Jake and Cam and Jeffcoat… they all have so much experience in this league and they pass it down to all of us.
“This is what I dreamed about – coming to the CFL and playing with a great team with great coaches, a great group of guys working toward that common goal and getting ‘er done.”
Storylines to watch during Friday’s final preseason game for the Blue Bombers and Roughriders…
The Blue Bombshell
The Blue Bombers announced Thursday afternoon that receiver Kenny Lawler has been moved to the suspended list ‘pending resolution of matters related to his 2021 off field incident.’
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) June 1, 2023
The club is hoping for a resolution within three-four weeks, but it certainly impacts what the receiving corps will look like to open the 2023 season – and, depending on what happens, possibly later. Lawler, who led the club in receiving in 2019 and 2021 before signing with the Edmonton Elks in free agency, was signed this winter to beef up an already-solid group of receivers.
As this unfolds, it makes the return of Rasheed Bailey – who took less in the open market to remain with the Blue Bombers – now look that much more massive. Ditto for the potential return to form for Carlton Agudosi, who had one sensational game last year before being injured and has been a standout in camp. Eight other new American receivers are also suiting up against the Riders in Amare Jones, Manasseh Bailey, Michael Young, Jr., Brendan Beaulieu, Gavin Garner, Braxton Westfield, Tavaris Harrison – who did see time last year but did not catch a pass – and Sean Coyne.
The club also has two solid Canadians behind Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky in Brendan O’Leary-Orange and 2023 draft pick Jeremy Murphy, who has had a solid camp.
Marc Liegghio and Sergio Castillo did not travel to Edmonton last week, leaving the placekicking chores to Chandler Staton while Global prospects Jamieson Sheahan and Karl Schmitz handled all the punting. That story doesn’t get any less compelling heading into the final tune-up before next week’s regular season opener.
Liegghio’s best asset right now is that he handles all three kicking chores – placekicking, punting and kickoffs – taking just one roster spot. Splitting those duties means a depth player comes out of the lineup. Still given what we saw last week from Sheahan and Schmitz in terms of distance, placement and hang-time that becomes increasingly more an option.
This just in… Zach Collaros – the CFL’s reigning two-time CFL MOP – is an absolute lock at No. 1 and Dru Brown is cemented at No. 2.
We spoke to Brown after Thursday’s walk-through and that interview is here:
That means the fight for the third string/short yardage package QB has one more chapter with Tyrrell Pigrome battling with Josh Jones. Pigrome was impressive last Saturday with two rushing TDs while showcasing his cannon arm; Jones got less than four minutes behind centre.
“I just want to be a better me – be a better player, be a better teammate, a better person to everybody,” said Pigrome. “Last week was last week. I had some moments, but this week is about me executing, doing the small things, doing the big things, making plays when they come but not trying to think about last week.
“I don’t want to press. I want to play with confidence and be calm and take what the defence gives me. I’m not going to try and out-do myself or anything – just be me. I know I won’t always be right, but I don’t want to make a bad play worse.”
The Fight for Jobs
This is the last chance for players chasing the few starting jobs available, or even a roster spot, to impress the coaching and management staff. Head coach Mike O’Shea when asked how a player might impress in the final preseason game: “Be right and make plays. Show a high degree of physicality – all the stuff that we like from football players. Those are the main ones.”
“It’s about evaluation. We want to have enough information on all the guys to make good and fair decisions.”
A couple areas to keep an eye on Friday: the secondary and defensive line. Veteran cornerbacks Winston Rose and Desmond Lawrence have missed a chunk of camp with injuries, giving more work to returnees Demerio Houston, Jamal Parker and Evan Holm, all of whom have had solid sessions from the first day.
The defensive front is an intriguing one, too. Ricky Walker is slotted in to replace Casey Sayles, who left in free agency for Hamilton, but the club would love to see an end step up as a potential rotational player to allow vets like Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat to take a breath – and especially with Thiadric Hansen currently on the six-game injured list.
One of the leading candidates is DeJaun Cooper, who signed with the club late last August and dressed for five regular season games. Cooper, who turned 24 on Thursday, would love to gift himself a roster spot as a birthday.
“I just want to execute my job and my responsibilities to show that I know what I’m doing to help the team in any way possible. If I could top it off with a sack or something, that would be nice,” Cooper said Thursday. “I’ll do whatever the coaches want me to do. I’d love to be on the active roster because that’s what we’re here for. Whatever they want me to do, whether it’s being a rotational player coming off the bench or on special teams… it’s all about doing whatever I can to help the team.
“Being here last year definitely helped me a lot even though I was coming in during the season. Learning everything this year from Day 1 has been really good for me. I’m very familiar with everything now. Coming into camp this year everything was less foreign to me, especially the yard off the ball rule. When I first got here that was a big adjustment.”
New receiver Amare Jones should get opportunity to return with Janarion Grant not playing. Matt Cole Abu Daramy-Swaray and Jordan Salima shared the return duties last week.
Coach O’Shea on the progress of Cole Adamson, who didn’t play last week and is making the transition from D-line to O-line: “It’s a tough ask. He’s certainly got a lot better through camp. The first couple of days were a little adventurous for him, I would say, but he’s stuck with it. That transition is very difficult and to be willing to see it through is not easy, right? He kept coming to work every day and kept improving and improving and improving. So, we’ll see how that goes. But he’s definitely shown a marked improvement through camp.”
We told you the story of Damian Jackson, the former Navy SEAL, on the first day of rookie camp, and the D-lineman/long snapper/turned fullback continues to make a name for himself as a do-everything player. Question is, does that earn him a spot on the roster?
“I don’t know if there’s much more to say. He’s all that,” said O’Shea. “He’s absolutely, 100 percent, all-in – which is what you’d expect from guys being here. He’s willing to take more risks, probably, than other guys by putting himself into a position where he’s out there on the field doing things he hasn’t done before.”