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June 5, 2024

Game Preview | MTL vs WPG

Ontaria Wilson will start his first career CFL game Thursday against Montreal -- photos by Cameron Bartlett

Game #1: Alouettes at Blue Bombers

Kickoff: Thursday, June 6th , 7:30 p.m. CDT; Princess Auto Stadium
TV/Streaming: TSN 1/3, RDS, CBS Sports Network;  CFL+
Radio: 680 CJOB
Notable: Tailgate area opens at 5:30 p.m.
Key links:
Transportation and parking info
Ticket info

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Scene Setter

They can be the hardest moments in any pro athlete’s life — waiting on cut-down day for the thumbs up or thumbs down, the latter often delivered by football’s Grim Reaper with a knock on the door and the ‘Coach wants to see you… and bring your playbook’ message.

Ontaria ‘Pokey’ Wilson has been there before, having been cut by the Los Angeles Chargers last year. He signed with the Blue Bombers late last November, immediately dove into the playbook and clips of the nuances of the Canadian game and not only made enough of an impression to earn a spot on the roster, he’ll start at slotback for the club in Thursday night’s season opener against the Montreal Alouettes.

And how he found out he had made the squad, well, that’s an interesting story…

“They had us in the dorms and then you’re just waiting for someone to knock on our door,” he told bluebombers.com this week. “It’s nerve-wracking waiting on that, but if no one comes and talks to you then you’ve made the team.

“Thing is, you do have roommates so, unfortunately, some guys in the room do get the knock and some don’t. You just don’t want to see anyone on that day. I’ve been cut before from teams, so this is a big accomplishment. But I never really celebrated it or, honestly, haven’t really taken it all in yet.”

Ontaria Wilson in the final preseason game (he now wears #80)

Wilson is an intriguing prospect for the Bombers. A product of Florida State, he had three different head coaches, six offensive coordinators and three receivers coaches with the Seminoles. Even with all that change he managed to flash enough to get the look from the Chargers.

He’s already put a checkmark by the first item on his Blue Bombers to-do list — make the team — and now it’s about growing into his role on a star-studded receiving corps week after week after week.

“I just want to be able to get in and fit in wherever they might need me and be able to make some plays,” he said. “I’ve had a fire, a drive, because I wanted to control me being able to continue playing football and not have someone put limitations on my game by saying, ‘He’s not able to play at a pro level.’ I really want to be able to show people I am capable.”

And that includes his hometown of Ashburn, Georgia — a city of 4,500 about 170 miles south of Atlanta.

“It’s a small town where everybody knows everybody,” Wilson said. “And if you’re a good athlete, pretty much everybody knows you. Everyone feels like family. My city, anywhere someone goes they’ll support you — it doesn’t matter what league your in, what city you’re in, the support is there. They’ll be there for me now that I’m here in Winnipeg.

“Everybody has already been asking me how they can watch the game and now my mom is trying to figure out which game she can get up here to see. It’s all so exciting. I can’t wait to make some plays and help this team win.”

3 THINGS TO WATCH

1. Rust? What rust?!?!

It seemed like a natural question, given Brandon Alexander hadn’t stepped onto the practice field for all of training camp and that 11 projected starters in total — Zach Collaros, Brady Oliveira, Pat Neufeld, Dalton Schoen, Nic Demski, Deatrick Nichols, Evan Holm, Jake Thomas, Kyrie Wilson, Adam Bighill (six-game injured list) and Alexander himself — hadn’t taken a single snap in the preseason.

Yet, before yours truly could even finish the question — and the moment the word ‘rust’ came out — the veteran safety just grinned.

“I don’t know what you consider rust, though,” he said with a shrug. “People want to go out there and get their first hit out of the way, their first tackle, their first cover. I mean, we’ve been doing those things in training camp all year, the only thing we don’t do is actually tackle somebody to the ground.”

Just for the record, the Blue Bombers are 4-0 in their last four home openers.

“First game day… this is Game 1 of the season and everybody’s going to feel the exact same way,” said Alexander. “No rust, none of those things. I’m ready to go, everybody else is ready to go. For guys who haven’t practised in training camp or isn’t practising now, when they’re ready, they’re ready. We’ve got professional guys that have already done that in previous years and are still able to contribute. It could be a positive thing. We want to take every practice rep and be here for all camp, but it could be beneficial for us. At the end of the day, we’ll be ready.”

2. Sky’s the Limit

Ask the men in the Blue Bombers offensive huddle and the message from the start of training camp has been universal: an offence that led the league in scoring last year has the potential to get even better.

Kenny Lawler told reporters earlier in camp he has set goals of 2,000-yards receiving and 23 TDs, lock in Dalton Schoen for another 1,000-yard season, Nic Demski is coming off his first 1K season, Zach Collaros has averaged 4,200 yards and 35 in the last two years, Drew Wolitarsky is a consistent 500-600-yard receiver and Brady Oliveira — the league’s rushing champ — had over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

So, how do Buck Pierce & Co. find more with everyone hungry for more, especially with an attack that already led the CFL in time of possession? Good question.

Still, the sense from the offensive crew is there is more out there.

“That was the first thing I said to coach Jason (Hogan), my running backs coach here,” said Oliveira of the ground game. “We’re watching tape in the meeting room when training camp started and the first couple of days go by, and I’m like, ‘Shoot, man, we really left a lot out there last year.’ We don’t really talk about numbers much here, but man we could have rushed for 2,000 yards last year.

“It’s exciting, though, because we know there’s so much room for growth and we have to have that mindset every single day, come in here and get that one percent better, get on the same page with one another, grow the football IQ. And I truly believe the sky is the limit with this unit.”

3. Step right up, Myron Mitchell

The Blue Bombers depth chart for the opener lists new receiver Myron Mitchell as the punt and kickoff returner. A product of Butler Community College and then the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Mitchell could be very busy. Consider this: in just eight games last year Janarion Grant had 58 combined kick returns (kickoffs, punts, missed field goals) and in 2022 when he played in 16 games he had 97 combined kick returns.

That’s potentially a ton of touches for a rookie.

“It’s going to be very fun. It’ll be like I’m back at home in the position I’m comfortable with after returning in college and a little bit professionally,” said Mitchell. “I’m comfortable catching the ball, I’m comfortable hitting the holes and trying to make plays while letting it develop.

“If I do get the opportunity, I’ll feel very comfortable about getting the job done. I’m looking forward to this and trying bring some excitement without trying to do too much. (Making the team) is a blessing for me. I worked hard for this. Now it’s about doing it day by day, week by week, so we can build up that wall and get back to the Grey Cup.”

THE LAST WORD

“I can’t wait. I can’t wait to see the stands filled with blue. I can’t wait to hear all the noise, can’t wait to see how rattled the opposing team is going to be.” — Willie Jefferson.