May 12, 2024

Quick Hits | Training Camp — Day 1

Drew Wolitarsky -- photos by Cameron Bartlett

Notes and quotes from Day 1 of main Blue Bombers training camp on Sunday…

Refresh, recharge, reload: Drew Wolitarsky has never been one to mask his emotions, win or lose, good day or bad day. And it’s that honesty which makes him one of the best quotes in the entire Canadian Football League.

One of the Blue Bombers deepest thinkers and vocal leaders, the veteran receiver was very open about his feelings upon his re-signing with the club in January, alluding to how the last two Grey Cup losses had stung so deeply. He even referred to how the championship loss to Montreal last November ‘broke our souls’ and how the team would need to address all that prior to the opening of camp.

And that’s exactly what they did Saturday when the whole team was back together for the first time.

Drew Wolitarsky

“We talked about it in a meeting,” Wolitarsky began after Day 1 of training camp. “Buck (Pierce, offensive coordinator) said something powerful; he said, ‘I don’t really talk about the past because the past is irrelevant. We’ve won and we’ve lost some games. We’re coming in with a new energy and we’re going to work to be the best to ever do it.’

“You know, I held on to that loss for a long time and Buck said the same thing. I held onto it for longer than I probably should have, but that pain has turned into excitement. My music has helped, too. I wrote a song called, ‘All Right Now’ and it is all right now. I use my dad as an example of how you go through these phases of life and these really hard times, but you hold on to what’s most important.

“And when we got into that room together all those feelings of last year were gone. We’re just so excited and you could feel it. Everyone is so psyched to be here, so psyched to be together. In a way, this is a fresh start. We lost two (Grey Cups in crazy ways) and it almost shattered that illusion of what we had to be, this ‘legacy’ or whatever. That s–t can creep into your mind. We’ve been an extraordinary team and done a lot of things a lot of teams couldn’t do. This year it’s different, has to be different.

“We’re moving forward,” he added. “Like I said, I held onto it for a long time but I’m not holding onto it any more. The truth is, bro, you don’t even really know if you’re ready until you walk into that locker room door. Then you see everyone and everyone is feeling the same as you. Then it’s about buying in together and doing it again. Then it’s like, ‘I’m ready, bro.'”

Comings/goings: The Blue Bombers made a series of moves to get down to the 85-player limit by Saturday night (not including ‘non-counters’ like draft picks). Eight players were released in DL Ali Fayad, Jordan Lewis, David Green and Anthony Bennett, receivers Bryce Mitchell and Keytaon Thompson, kicker Jose Borregales and offensive tackle Kendall Randolph, while DBs James Campbell, Montrae Braswell, DL Kenny Randall and receiver Braxton Burmeister were all moved to the suspended list.

The most notable of that group is Bennett, the Canadian DE who played in every game last year, including the playoffs. Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said the club’s top pick from last year’s draft came into camp with an injury and he’s certainly still in the team’s plans.

Anthony Bennett dressed for every game for the Blue Bombers in 2023

“He’s just not healthy,” said O’Shea. “He’s a guy that hope would be able to rehab and we can get back in the room — we’re certainly not writing him off, for sure. We picked him for a reason. We like him.”

Asked later in his media session what he liked about Bennett’s rookie year, O’Shea added:

“I think he did well and like every other rookie, when they come into their second year they’re primed to really show a lot more. And just with the comfort level I thought he was going to come in and do great things. For that young man it’s unfortunate. We give him a day to collect his thoughts and then kick him in the butt to get him going and he’ll be fired up (Monday) t0 get after it and see where the rehab’s going to take him.”

The Blue Bombers also plan to rehab Fayad and Kendall Randolph, the former Alabama OL, with O’Shea indicating “there’s some guys we’d like to let Al (Couture, head athletic therapist) and his staff work with and see where we can get them.”

Not practising on Day 1 were RB Brady Oliveira, SB Nic Demski, OL Pat Neufeld and S Brandon Alexander. Quizzed specifically about Oliveira, Demski and Neufeld — three starting Canadians — O’Shea said: “They’ll get back when they can get back. Those three names have proven to be extremely important and we’re going to make sure when they take the field finally they’ll be in the best shape they can be.”

Smoke delayed: The Blue Bombers were scheduled to be on the field for Day 1 Sunday morning, but the session was pushed into the late afternoon due to the poor air quality. Heavy smoke covered southern Manitoba due to numerous fires in western Canada, including some that popped up near The Pas and Flin Flon.

“It’s Day 1 of camp. Everybody is fired up and, to a man, they would have been disappointed if they had needed to be held back and didn’t get the chance to get out here,” said O’Shea. “Mother Nature cooperated. I’m certainly not a meteorologist but from what you hear this could be a dry summer and we’ll be dealing with this. If this is all we have to deal with and if this is all we have to deal with, that’s great, because a lot of people have forest fires ranging by their town… there’s a lot more they’re worrying about, so switching practices around is really nothing.”

Willie Being Willie: No one has more fun on a daily basis in Bomberland than veteran DE Willie Jefferson, who said this of Day 1 of training camp: “It feels amazing. It’s cliché, but it’s a first-day-of-school vibe. I’m just happy to see all the vet guys back and see the young guys mixed in with the vets.”

Willie being Willie

Pressed further as to what makes the start of a new camp so much fun, he offered this:

“For one, me being who I am to this organization, to the league, to this culture, I just want to be a leader and show these guys I’m happy — happy to be here, happy to be on this field, happy to be with the guys, happy to lead. We had our little thing this morning with the air quality and not knowing if we were going to practice and then once we got the notification we were going to practice I felt it was on me to get everybody pumped up, get everybody’s energy going because it was pretty down.

“We did a walk-through this morning indoors and guys came back, ‘Ah, I don’t know if we’re going to practice.’ Then we got the message and some guys were still like, ‘Ah, we’re going to go outside and practice.’ And I was like, ‘Nah, man. We’re going to go outside and we’re going to practice. New field. Let’s get it!’ So I turned the music on, got the vibe going and we came out here and had us a great practice.”

Quotable: “I don’t know that you’re going to replace the energy that those two guys, Rasheed and Jermarcus, or that you can find somebody that jumps right into that role. I don’t know that that can be authentic, right? It’s hard for a young guy to do that, too, because they’re still trying to find their place. I don’t know that you’re going to ask any of the vets to bring that same style of energy — you want them to lead the way they’re wired to lead.” — O’Shea on camp opening without two former energy vets in Rasheed Bailey and Jermarcus Hardrick.

FWIW: The Blue Bombers practice session opened with Eric Lofton, who started 14 games with Saskatchewan last year, at right tackle and Liam Dobson at left guard — they are the leading candidates to replace Jermarcus Hardrick and Geoff Gray, respectively. Tui Eli was at Neufeld’s right guard spot up front along the OL.

Other notable switches: with Oliveira out, Johnny Augustine was with the first group, while Ravi Alston was working in the spot left held by Rasheed Bailey. Jeremy Murphy worked in Demski’s spot, while Redha Kramdi took some turns at safety for Alexander.

Next: Monday’s practice at Princess Auto Stadium is scheduled to run from 9:45 a.m.-12:35 p.m. (all times subject to change).