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May 11, 2024

Training Camp Preview

Main Blue Bombers training camp opens Sunday morning at Princess Auto Stadium

A couple of facts to serve as a refresher as the curtain rises on the 2024 Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp Sunday morning…

-No team has won more games in the Canadian Football League over the last four years than the Blue Bombers, with the club’s 51-17 regular-season record a full 11 wins better than the next best squad, the Toronto Argonauts.

-As well, no team has made four consecutive Grey Cup appearances – just as the Blue Bombers have done dating back to 2019 –since the Edmonton dynasty of 1978-82.

And, yes, it’s also worth noting that the Blue Bombers have lost the last two championship games by a grand total of five points in a sting most involved will admit will never go away.

Still, the first day of training camp marks an occasion where old meets new – veterans welcoming wide-eyed rookies, old ideas mixed with fresh new concepts, and old storylines intersecting with what is ahead.

The Blue Bombers, it could be argued, remain the most compelling team heading into the season as a clear-cut front-runner for the Grey Cup – Vegas oddsmakers have them at +200 – and yet a team with some to-be-determined vacancies that need to be filled and questions to answer in advance of the season opener June 6th at Princess Auto Stadium against the Montreal Alouettes.

So, it’s with that as a backdrop that we preview what’s next with 10 storylines/questions to monitor as training camp opens, in no particular order…

THE STREVELER EFFECT

Chris Streveler

The quarterback depth chart saw two exit over the winter with Dru Brown traded to the Ottawa RedBlacks before he became a free agent and Dakota Prukop moving on to the B.C. Lions after the return of Chris Streveler.

Ah, yes, the Strev-o-lution is upon us again with one of the franchise’s most-popular players back in house after four years bouncing around the NFL. Blue Bombers fans know full well what kind of damage he can inflict as a bulldozing runner out of the backfield – he had 22 rushing touchdowns in 35 games over 2018-19 and set a club record for rushing yards by a QB in 2019 with 726, smashing a record held by the legendary Ken Ploen.

What will be intriguing to study is his potential impact in other ways in Buck Pierce’s offensive scheme with his skills as a passer no doubt enhanced in the NFL and with two QBs now allowed to be on the field at the same time.

WHAT NEXT, ZACH?

Zach Collaros

He’s already a Blue Bombers legend, having gone 39-8 as a starter in the regular season since he was acquired in October of 2019 and leading the team to two championships and four straight Grey Cup appearances.

He’s rapidly climbing up all the franchise Top 10 lists in passing and has 70 passing touchdowns against 28 interceptions and 8,435 yards in the last two seasons alone. At 35 and under contract through 2025 there have been no indications Collaros can’t keep piling up those numbers. Ultimately, what undoubtedly fuels the cagey pivot – just like every other returning player – is grinding to get back to the Grey Cup and take some of the ache away from the last two championship defeats.

WHO MANS THE RIGHT FLANK?

Chris Ivy

Jermarcus Hardrick was an imposing figure at right tackle for the Blue Bombers since 2016, starting 113 games at the spot as Winnipeg’s offensive line established itself as the best in the land. ‘Yoshi’ hit paydirt in free agency, becoming the highest-paid American O-lineman in the league by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

That leaves a gaping hole at that spot, and in the energy department, and the Blue Bombers have amassed a collection of contenders they hope can become his replacement. Eric Lofton, who was with the club in 2022 and started 14 games for Saskatchewan last year, is among the group, as is Chris Ivy, who spent a lot of time on the practice roster and was noticeable in rookie camp.

Management might also want to keep a few prospects here, knowing that future hall of famer Stanley Bryant turned 38 earlier this week.

NO GRAY AREA

Liam Dobson

One more change along an offensive front that has seen so much roster stability over the last few years – left guard Geoff Gray was caught in the salary cap crunch and was not re-signed, leaving another hole up front. Canadians Liam Dobson and Tui Eli are in the mix – Eli also plays centre – and second-round draft pick Gabe Wallace is a massive human who could also push, if not now, certainly as the season progresses.

Gray, to his credit, was a gamer, intelligent and durable. That’s a combination not often easily replaced.

MORE, MORE, MORE IN THE OLIVEIRA ENCORE?

Brady Oliveira

Hard to imagine Brady Oliveira could top his 2023 season, one in which he captured the rushing crown, was named the league Most Outstanding Canadian and a runner-up for the Most Outstanding Player Award. Still his touches jumped from 225 in 2022 (202 carries, 23 receptions) to 298 (260/38) in 2023 and given his production – 6.8-yards per touch – it stands to reason he’ll be a workhorse again this year.

He had seven 100-yard rushing games and one 100-yard receiving game last season and even with the arrival of Streveler to bolster the ground attack, could see all of his career-best totals boosted again.

SECONDARY GIGS UP FOR GRABS

Tyrique McGhee

CFL All-Star and leading interception man Demerio Houston bolted for Calgary in free agency and while Jamal Parker wrestled the other cornerback spot from Winston Rose late last year, he started only five games, including the playoffs.

That leaves the two cornerback spots there for the taking with Tyrique McGhee – who started one game last year – a leading candidate for one job and the return of Canadian Tyrell Ford from the Green Bay Packers offering some potential ratio flexibility. The DB room is stacked with new faces to go along with veteran starters Deatrick Nichols, Brandon Alexander, Evan Holm, Redha Kramdi.

LONGING FOR THE LONGHORN?

Celestin Haba

Jackson Jeffcoat quietly did his thing for the Blue Bombers from 2017 through 2023 — and often in the considerable shadow of Willie Jefferson – but racked up 38 career sacks in Winnipeg colours, eighth all time in franchise history. Stout against the run and a master of the strip sack, he won’t be easily replaced, although management hopes Celestin Haba and Tyjuan Garbutt – both with the team for stretches last year – or a newcomer like Chauncey Rivers might step up to grab the end spot.

There’s also an opening at tackle with Ricky Walker gone and the coaches like Miles Fox – scooped up last year following his release by B.C. – while on Saturday former Montreal Alouette Jabari Ellis was added. And with the stockpile of Canadian tackles, including veterans Jake Thomas, Cam Lawson and Tanner Schmekel, they could also look at scenarios where two homegrowns might be on the inside together.

‘NEW’, BUT FAMILIAR VOICES

Mike Miller

Mike O’Shea’s coaching staff has been the picture of stability for years – a huge reason for the team’s success – and while most of the faces are back this year, there has been some tweaking. Mike Miller, the GOAT special teamer, retired and is now the special teams coordinator and replaces Paul Boudreau, now with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

As well, Jordan Younger was elevated to the title of defensive coordinator from defensive backs coach, with Richie Hall now listed as a defensive assistant. The impact of those changes won’t really be visible until the ball is put on the tee for the regular season, but the three of them – Miller, Younger and Hall – have the utmost of respect in the building and across the league.

‘SHOWTIME’ EXITS, WHO STEPS IN?

Kevens Clercius

Rasheed Bailey brought a lot of things to the Blue Bombers offensive huddle – a toughness and willingness to do the dirty work like chopping down ends at the line of scrimmage and blocking downfield for teammates. He was also an ‘energy’ guy which – coupled with the departure of Hardrick – is an element that might be missing or could provide others the opportunities to grab that role.

Bailey averaged 54 catches for 622 yards and seven touchdowns over the years and those numbers need to be replaced. Winnipeg’s receiving corps is still stacked with Dalton Schoen, Kenny Lawler, Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky, but there is a job to be won in camp. One of the candidates to keep an eye on is Kevens Clercius, the team’s first pick in the 2024 CFL Draft and a guy who seeks out the dirty work.

LOOKING FOR A NEW ACE RETURN MAN

Aron Cruickshank

Janarion Grant spoke barely above a whisper, but when he was on the football field his presence was made loud and clear. Caught in the salary-cap squeeze this offseason, the Blue Bombers were forced to move on from the franchise’s all-time leader in kick return touchdowns. His durability was a concern, and he did turn 30 last November, but Grant’s big-play capability isn’t simply replaceable – as Blue Bombers fans saw when he wasn’t on the field over the last couple of seasons.

There are up to 10 different candidates under consideration, including Kody Case, Ronnie Blackmon, Aron Cruickshank, K.J. Hill, Chris Smith, Ronnie Brown, Demetries Ford and Peter Afful.