March 15, 2024

“I think camp will help us evolve together and be on the same page”

It could be argued that no one lives as large as the men in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive line room.

Theirs is a brotherhood formed and hardened in the trenches, fuelled by red meat, donuts and lager, and galvanized by their universal acceptance that the spotlight will often be focused elsewhere.

And over the last few years, the Blue Bombers offensive line room has also been the picture of stability with the same five faces regularly trotted out as starters. That’s about to change in 2024 with right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick exiting for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in free agency and Geoff Gray remaining unsigned.

One of the mainstays – left tackle and future hall of famer Stanley Bryant – met with media this week and spoke about the future dynamic without Hardrick and Gray along with the increased roles of returnees Liam Dobson and Tui Eli, who will feature along the inside of the line and Eric Lofton, who might be the leading candidate at the right flank.

“It’ll be very interesting. I think Liam, Tui, they’re pretty good guys,” Bryant said. “They’re good on the field. Tui has experience at right guard, and I played with Liam last year at left guard against Edmonton so, they have the experience. I think camp will help us evolve together and be on the same page, knowing what he likes to do, what he’s good at and what he’s not good at and how we can come together on the left side and be dominant like we have been in the past.”

“… (Lofton) was here in ’22, he knows how we do things here. He didn’t get a chance to play but one game that season, but he knows how we do things day in and day out. He got a chance to play last year in Sask so I think that helped his confidence a lot, so it’d be big for him to come back here with that experience of playing, I think he played 18 games with Sask last year, so it’ll be good for him to step in, try and compete, and win a spot if he can.”

The Blue Bombers surrendered 33 sacks last year, second fewest in the Canadian Football League to Toronto’s 19, and the offensive line was a key component in the attack leading the league in scoring, as Zach Collaros led all QBs with 33 touchdown passes and Brady Oliveira rumbled to his first rushing title.

What isn’t easy to measure is the energy Hardrick – along with Rasheed Bailey, now with the Argonauts – brought to work every day. Bryant joked this week he already noticed a difference walking into the building.

“I was in the weight room thinking about that,” Bryant explained. “It’s going to be very quiet, for sure. He’s one of those guys who loves the game. He brings it every practice, every game, with the passion and the energy. He’s a loveable guy and he’s a guy who lifts the team up. Like I said, it’s going to be quiet and tough at the beginning of camp. Some practices when things are down, that was the guy to lift us up, but I think we’ll make a good adjustment and not try to find someone to be like him, but just come and be closer as a team. He’s a family member, he left us, but I mean, it’s OK, we’ll figure it out.”

That said, there are a ton of veterans on this 2024 Blue Bombers side, and the departures of Hardrick and Bailey will now provide the opportunity for other voices to be heard.

 “I still think there’s enough of a core,” said Bryant. “Those guys (including Jackson Jeffcoat) are key talents that we had in the past, but I think we have some young guys that are ready to step in and take over the role and do what they need to do. Like I said before, we still have the same core group of guys. Me, Paddy (Neufeld), Zach, Drew Wolitarsky, Willie (Jefferson), I mean, there’s a bunch of guys I could name. I wish those guys the best that aren’t here anymore with the things they decided to do but I think we’ll be fine.”