June 5, 2023

“Stay healthy, start fast and help this team win football games.” | Need To Know

Feel free to exhale now, Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans, and resist the urge to keep gnawing at your fingernails — the club’s infirmary is emptying at just the right time.

The Blue Bombers opened their first full practice week of the 2023 Canadian Football League season on Monday in advance of Friday’s home opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the session featured a swack of familiar names returning from injury.

Veteran linebacker Adam Bighill, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and cornerback Desmond Lawrence were all back at their posts for practice, as was running back Brady Oliveira, and the three regulars should all be in the lineup against the Ticats.

Bighill’s return is especially noteworthy, as the all-star middle linebacker – who has missed only three games in four years with the Blue Bombers – had not practised at all during training camp.

“I actually really like training camp,” Bighill said after a scorching practice Monday. “I know that’s going to sound crazy, but I love the practice, I love the work, I love the competition, I love being with the guys so, for me, camp’s fun.

“It’s just a matter of seeing some reps here in practice, running around and getting back to it.”

Bighill was working with the defensive starters on Monday, as was Jeffcoat, who has made periodic appearances and Lawrence, who had not practised for over a week. None of that trio dressed in either of the two preseason games.

“A bit of an interesting camp,” Bighill said. “I don’t know if I’ve been to a camp where you really don’t have an open slot on offence or defence. I don’t think I could have ever said that in any camp I’ve ever been. So, you’re looking for depth, you’re looking for guys to come in and help play roles and obviously build the ability of this team.

“From the jump, camp for the offence and defence started really fast. The continuity, the understanding, the playmakers are making plays early and fast, the playbooks started fast and were elaborated on quickly. It’s just a great place to be. You saw it on Day 1, you saw it by the end of camp where everything was. It’s good because everything is fast-tracked. It’s not remedial, it’s how can we improve and take this to the next level and create different looks and do different things.

“It’s pretty awesome that we have the group to be able to do that.”

Not practising on Monday were fullback Mike Miller, offensive lineman Tui Eli, cornerback Winston Rose, defensive tackle Cam Lawson and defensive back Jamal Parker, who was injured in last Friday’s preseason finale and was sporting a walking boot on Monday.

With the Bombers returning to the practice field Monday for their first session in advance of Friday’s date with Hamilton here are some other items to help get you up to speed in this year’s first installment of NEED TO KNOW…

-CONFIDENCE IS A POWERFUL THING: Oliveira’s return to work means the club will roll out the hometown product as its starting tailback for Week 1, with veteran Johnny Augustine in reserve.

Oliveira was very upfront a year ago about his struggles to start last season – and the backlash he saw on social media – but his finish to the campaign, which concluded with him reaching the 1,000-yard mark, was sensational.

Asked what is different today to this time a year ago, when he was dealing with being the replacement for Andrew Harris, Oliveira offered this:

“Confidence and knowing that I belong in this league and knowing that I played a full 18-game season plus playoffs and then the Grey Cup. It’s knowing that I belong in this league and I’m a top running back in this league and I know I can do it.”

Oliveira, like many of his teammates, used last year’s Grey Cup loss as fuel in training this winter and now vows to further establish himself as one of the league’s best backs.

“My biggest thing is how can I help this team win football games and get to our ultimate goal,” he said. “Stay healthy, start fast and help this team win football games.”

-DEEP CUTS THE KNIFE: The Blue Bombers made their roster moves on Saturday with the most noteworthy being the release of veteran kicker Marc Liegghio. That means the kicking chores will be split by veteran Sergio Castillo – now in his third stint with the club – and Global punter Jamieson Sheahan, with Karl Schmitz on the practice roster.

Castillo said he was grateful to be back, but also sympathetic to Liegghio’s situation. In fact, the two met after the news was delivered on Saturday.

“It’s tough. I’ve been there 11 times in my career so tried to give him my advice from all the experiences I’ve been through,” Castillo said. “We went out that night and I talked to him as much as I could. There’s no words to console someone once you get let go from a job. The best thing is to get home and there’s a 24-hour rule that I like to live by – you win, you celebrate, you lose, you dwell on it for 24 hours but after that you just get back to work. That’s what I told him. And if he ever needs any type of advice I’m here, just like I have been when I met him in ’21.

“I’ve been there. I’ve been there 11 times from the NFL to here. It sucks. It hurts to get cut because you train six months out of the year to hopefully be in one of these nine positions in Canada. And when you think about it there’s less than 60 jobs in the whole world with the other three leagues. I’ve always learned if you have a gift, try to help others explore their gift. And when someone’s down and if you’ve been through that, help them out as well.

“It’s a very small fraternity and there’s not many back-ups who are ready and can come in and compete and step onto this field and just do as well.”

Castillo steps into a role he is familiar with, but with the pressures that come from such a black and white gig – the ball either goes through the uprights, or it doesn’t.

Yet, he reminded everyone of the ACL injury he suffered in October of 2017 and the long road he travelled to get back.

“I counted every single day, I signed a contract every single day because I know the positive emotion that brought to me – us humans, we’re moved by emotions. You see a funny movie, you laugh, you watch a scary movie you tense up,” he explained. “I know a positive feeling of signing a contract. For me, if I could overcome and ACL and being without a team for 618 days, I can overcome anything.”

-FYI: Head coach Mike O’Shea was asked about the Kenny Lawler suspension after Friday’s game and again on Monday. His latest answer: “Sure it’s disappointing, but most importantly he’s getting what he needs from his teammates – they’re showing him a lot of support. It’s unfortunate this has come about this way, but we’ll just have to wait a little longer; fans can anticipate a little longer.”… One more from O’Shea, on the Liegghio decision: “I hate (cut-down day) for them. For me, it’s part of my job and I understand that. I hate it for the guys. Leggz… we got a Grey Cup with him. He handled all the duties last year when we thrust that upon him and you don’t find too many three-way guys anymore and he was doing a good job for us, good enough to put us where we were last year.” O’Shea said Castillo was solid throughout training camp and both Sheahan and Schmitz consistently brought hang time, distance, and directional placement to their punts… With Parker in a walking boot and Lawrence back at work, the Blue Bombers secondary featured Lawrence and Demerio Houston at corner, Deatrick Nichols and Evan Holm at halfback, Alden Darby, Jr. at dime and Brandon Alexander at safety.