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May 28, 2024

Quick Hits | Training Camp — Day 17

Right tackle Eric Lofton -- photos by Cameron Bartlett

Notes and quotes from Blue Bombers training camp…

It was mid-February and the Canadian Football League’s free-agent market was already wide open for business. That’s when Eric Lofton answered a phone call from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and before they could make their official sales pitch, the veteran right tackle — a player who had been with the club in 2022 — already had his answer ready.

“I ain’t going to lie to you, when they called I just said, ‘Yes.’ Right away it was, ‘Yes’ and we can figure everything else out later,” said Lofton in a chat with bluebombers.com on Tuesday. “They said, ‘We’re going to have a competition for that spot. Come in ready to compete and be ready for whatever we need you to do.’

“And I said, ‘Yes’ again. It was that easy.”

The Blue Bombers entered training camp with two vacancies on the offensive line: at right tackle with Jermarcus Hardrick having signed in free agency with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and at left guard with Geoff Gray essentially a victim of a salary-cap squeeze.

Lofton appears to have locked down the right tackle spot with Liam Dobson, who has also filled in at centre with both Chris Kolankowski and Tui Eli nicked up during camp, getting work in the middle of the line and at left guard.

Eric Lofton

Here’s Lofton, who started 14 games for the Riders last year, on stepping in for Hardrick:

“I look at it like this: there’s never going to be another Jermarcus Hardrick. He’s one of the greatest tackles to ever play up here and whenever he decides he’s done playing, he’s going into the hall of fame. I’m never going to step right into his shoes and say, ‘OK, I’m the next Jermarcus.’ The only thing I can do is come to Winnipeg and be the best Eric Lofton I can be.

“I can’t be him. I can’t be Stan. I can’t be anybody else but the best possible Eric Lofton I can be to put this team in the best possible position to win. That’s it.”

Lofton said his year with the Riders was critical because there is no substitute for live reps in real games. He also saluted teammates and offensive line coach Marty Costello for his growth since he first arrived in Winnipeg in 2022.

Critical now for him and Dobson is to not just be plug-and-play replacements for Hardrick and Gray, but uphold the offensive line’s reputation as one of the best in the CFL.

“The standard is set,” Lofton said. “Everybody who comes to this team knows exactly what that standard was and still is and they have to play up to it or they won’t be here for very long. The thing I like about Winnipeg is it’s not just the offensive line that has that standard, it’s the whole organization that has the highest standards. That’s what makes it an amazing place to play.

“I love trying to meet that standard every single day.”

Double-duty Dobson: As mentioned above, Dobson is standing out in camp because of his ability to step in and play both guard and take reps as centre with Kolankowski and Eli on the mend. Now entering his third year with the club, the 2022 first-round pick is poised to become a regular starter. And there’s a collective belief this group could still be elite.

Chris Kolankowski, Liam Dobson, Pat Neufeld and Eric Lofton

“Without a doubt,” said Dobson. “When you have a guy like Stanley Bryant, who has been a star in this league for many years, and you have a guy like Chris K who has grown to be a tremendous player in the last three-four years and a leader of the unit, and a guy like Paddy who is now back… the experience those guys provide to this unit is just phenomenal.

“It’s a great room to be in, learning from those three guys. We’ve got a standard to meet. I don’t know if I’d call it an expectation, I just know I want to put it on the line for those guys every single game and if I do that then I know the guys in that room will be happy.”

From blue and gold to double blue: The Toronto Argonauts announced Tuesday the signing of Janarion Grant — the Blue Bombers all-time leader in kick return touchdowns. That undoubtedly stings fans in Bomberland, even knowing that Grant was squeezed out in free agency by the salary cap restrictions with a veteran-laden club.

“He’s a very good player. He deserves to be playing,” said head coach Mike O’Shea of Grant signing in Toronto. “From our side, it’s just every year you can’t sign everybody. Any time you lose a guy I’m a bit disappointed. If you were to talk to our group they’d tell you I like everybody and would like everybody back.”

Finding Grant’s replacement will likely come down to what happens in Friday’s final preseason game against the Calgary Stampeders at Princess Auto Stadium. O’Shea said he’s seen enough in camp to believe the club has an answer in house.

The signs?

“It starts with how they field footballs, mostly from the punt side of it — those are harder to catch than anything you kick,” he said. “Kickoff or a missed field goal are pretty easy to field; you and I can field those ones. It’s how they catch punts because those are trickier. It’s their confidence in doing that. And for the guys that are new to the CFL, it’s how quickly they pick up the nuances in the game and the instructions they’re given.

“They’ve all shown return ability or we wouldn’t have them back there.”

He’s back: OL Pat Neufeld’s workload continues to progress upon his return to the practice field in the last two days. He said Tuesday he had suffered an injury in offseason training, but is good to go now. “You don’t realize how much you miss football until you’re watching and standing and you should be out there participating,” he said. “It’s great to be back.”

Comings/goings: The Blue Bombers trimmed their roster on Tuesday, releasing three receivers in Peter Afful, Tyler Adams and Jaylen Hall and OL Khalil Keith.

Quotable: “I just want to go out there and compete — same thing I’ve done throughout camp — go out be myself. Anytime they’re keeping score on anything, whether it’s video games or Uno, I want to win.” — Eric Lofton on his goals for Friday night’s preseason game.

Next: Wednesday’s practice goes from 10:45 a.m.- 12:50 p.m. at Princess Auto Stadium and is open to the public.