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May 26, 2024

Quick Hits | Training Camp Day 15

Defensive tackle Jake Thomas -- photos by Cameron Bartlett

Notes and quotes from Blue Bombers training camp…

Every year across the Canadian Football League map training camps open with hopes and expectations, with question marks on rosters and sure-things so guaranteed their names are chiseled in stone atop the depth chart.

And so, in that big-picture sense, the process of camp is akin to dumping a new puzzle onto the dining room table then getting to work building the border and then meticulously putting the other pieces into place.

Sunday marked two weeks completed of main training camp for the Blue Bombers, with Friday’s preseason tilt against the Calgary Stampeders at Princess Auto Stadium the last dress rehearsal before the roster is finalized on June 1st. And asked to assess his squad after a couple of weeks, head coach Mike O’Shea got straight to the point:

Mike O’Shea

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “But every year you feel this way, that we need to be better. We’re still not consistent enough. We’ve got some periods in practice that are awesome to watch, and then you get some that are less than stellar and you’ve got to realize we’ve got to be consistent. We’re also dealing with whatever number of guys it is.

“And then, like every year, you see the potential. I think we could be a pretty good team again.”

That’s an encouraging thought — ‘we could be a pretty good team again’ — considering it comes from a coach who regularly stiff-arms hyperbole to the turf. And, as well, considering this is a club which has won more games than any other in the league over the last few years and advanced to four consecutive Grey Cups, winning twice.

Follow along here as we provide a two-week check in on the Blue Bombers with what we’ve learned and what’s still to be determined…

What we’ve learned from watching over two weeks:

Zach Collaros

-The Blue Bombers 51-17 record over the past four seasons comes from the collection of all-star talent and elite coaching and this crew will again be driven by its star power. So, when we offer this, it will hardly come as a newsflash: Zach Collaros is still good. Kenny Lawler and Dalton Schoen are still dynamic. Stanley Bryant is still a dominant tackle. Willie Jefferson will still be a nightmare for offences. Deatrick Nichols and Evan Holm will continue to be forces in the secondary.

The club has also come to trust veterans like Jake Thomas and Drew Wolitarsky, Chris Kolankowski, Kyrie Wilson, Redha Kramdi, Sergio Castillo and Jamieson Sheahan, all who have been grinding throughout most of camp.

-If cornerback was a question mark heading into camp with the departure of Demerio Houston to Calgary and with Winston Rose replaced by Jamal Parker down the stretch last season, those concerns have been softened by the work of Tyrell Ford and Tyrique McGhee and the emergence of a new faces like Marquise Bridges and Terrell Bonds, among others. Parker suffered an injury in camp and could be gone for a while, but no franchise has found more talented DBs in the CFL in the last few years than the Blue Bombers.

New QB Darren Grainger

-Terry Wilson has a head start on the No. 3 quarterback job behind Collaros and Chris Streveler. That’s a given after the weekend, with highly-advertised Eric Barriere released on Saturday and a new pivot in Darren Grainger now in the building and just one preseason game remaining.

-A handful of vets haven’t taken a single snap in camp in RB Brady Oliveira, receiver Nic Demski, safety Brandon Alexander and right guard Pat Neufeld, but the thinking is all should be good to go by the season opener on June 6th vs. the Montreal Alouettes. There may be some rust to knock off, certainly, but management also doesn’t want to push these vets to the point they are breaking down before the real games begin.

What IS concerning are the injuries to Parker, to linebacker Adam Bighill and defensive tackle Cam Lawson — all key components — in what is an early-season test of the team’s depth, especially with Parker and Lawson expected to be out for a longer spell.

Defensive coordinator Jordan Younger

-Jordan Younger’s defence is going to be a fun bunch to watch. Elevated to the defensive coordinator position over the winter, the former defensive backs coach has already showcased a variety of looks in training camp that should make the defence difficult to predict. Remember, too, that this was a defence which already ranked first in fewest points allowed, first in net offence allowed, third vs. the rush and first against the pass.

Still to be determined after watching for two weeks:

Chris Smith

-The front-runner for the kick-return gig left vacant with Janarion Grant not re-signed? Your guess is as good as any at this point. Four different players returned punts in the game in Saskatchewan and three returned kickoffs but no one popped and it’s a position truly only decided by live reps. Joked O’Shea on Sunday: “We need more reps for all these guys. We’re going to call Calgary and ask them to punt on every second down so we can get more reps for our returners.”

-Celestin Haba and Liam Dobson look poised to be the the next-men up at defensive end and guard. Haba is primed to replace Jackson Jeffcoat and his experience from a year ago — four sacks in eight games — has shown through camp. He’s been explosive.

Dobson, meanwhile, has worked at both guard and centre in camp, especially with Chris Kolankowski and Tui Eli being nicked up in the past week or so. The Bombers also have found a good one in Gabe Wallace, a guard candidate selected 17th overall in the CFL Draft earlier this month. O’Shea on Wallace: “He strikes me as an old school football player. It’s what we saw on film. He’s a bit of a brawler and as he gets more accustomed to Canadian football again and the level of opponent, he’ll get better and better. As far as his style of play, we knew he was going to be a fit.”

Myron Mitchell

-The one starting receiver opening is going to be a tough call. Lock in Schoen, Lawler, Demski and Wolitarsky. There is also Canadian depth there in draft picks like Jeremy Murphy (from last year) and Kevens Clercius as well as versatile RB/WR Jonathan Rosery.

The collection of American receivers have all taken turns moving up into the spot previously owned by Rasheed Bailey, but the days ahead — and the preseason game on Friday — could land someone a starting gig. Among those still in the fight are Myron Mitchell, Kody Case, Josh Vann, Ontarria Wilson, Josh Johnson, Peter Afful, Jr. and more.

-Eric Lofton looks to be the replacement for Jermarcus Hardrick at right tackle, but there is a group still pushing him in Kendall Randolph, Chidi Okeke and Chris Ivy, while Larnell Coleman has been working primarily at left tackle. Micah Vanterpool is also an intriguing prospect.

FYI: Sergio Castillo, who left earlier in the week to tend to a personal matter, was expected back Sunday night. Dante Mastroguiseppe has handled the placekicking in his absence and punter Jamieson Sheahan stepped up to nail field goals Sunday morning including a pair of kicks from 37 yards out.

Quotable: Mike O’Shea when asked about players potentially fixating on others vying for the same position being released or added:

“I see it like this — you’re running the 100 metres. There’s no reason to look to either side. There’s no point. Just keep your chin pointed forward and run your race and see what happens at the end. If you start looking, you lose spots. There’s no point in counting the roster. They have no clue of what the big picture is so stay focussed on what you’re doing, keep your chin pointed forward and keep going.”

Next: Monday’s practice session at Princess Auto Stadium runs from 8:30 a.m.- 11:15 a.m. and is open to the public.