Tait’s Take is presented by Anderson’s Hitch ‘N Post
June 12, 2016
OTTAWA – He’s been given the keys to a new muscle car and, as much as Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Drew Willy must be itching to let the thing loose, he understands fully and completely how this works.
Canadian Football League preseason games are more often about finding rhythm and timing – all while working in vanilla schemes – and getting ready for when it all is for real. It often means a high-powered beast comes out of second gear only for a moment and teases everyone, including the man behind the wheel, at the possibilities.
And so as much as winning last week’s exhibition debut against the Montreal Alouettes got River City buzzing, and a win Monday in Ottawa in the final dress rehearsal would only enhance that vibe in advance of the regular-season opener, it’s about a methodical build to November.
Squealing the tires and revving the engine in June? That’d be just for show.
Thus the question that was put to Willy Sunday afternoon in Ottawa at the team’s hotel: with those kinds of restrictions in place in the preseason, how does a quarterback really know he and the offence are ready for prime time?
“I don’t know if you ever know if you’re ready,” began Willy. “We’ve gotten off to good starts the past couple of years in the opening game, but it’s a long season, a marathon, and really you want to be playing your best football at the end. You’d like to get off to a hot start and keep the consistency going.
“For myself, it’s just getting more and more reps, not necessarily even game reps. There’s different situations I need to be put in, whether it’s game or practice.”
Willy will start Monday’s game against the REDBLACKS and figures to play at least a half. Matt Nichols will also see his time at the controls increase, meaning Dominique Davis and Bryan Bennett might get limited snaps behind centre. That’s part of the delicate balance coaches must deal with in preseason – using games to evaluate personnel while at the same time getting their starters the work they need to be ready when the curtain lifts.
Willy said he’s got a grip on Paul LaPolice’s playbook and that there are no play calls that would have him momentarily racking his brain. But there’s also a second component to being a quarterback at the controls of a new attack.
“… To be able to coach it and teach it is the big thing,” said Willy. “If there’s guys in the huddle that are young and they’re looking at you and saying, ‘How do I run this route? Or how do I do this?’ and with a certain amount of play clock time, I’ve got a lot to think about. That’s where you know that you really get it, you’re able to teach it or tell a guy in the huddle exactly how you want it done within a certain time limit.
“It’s getting to the point where I can relate it exactly how Coach LaPo and Coach Buck Pierce want it and be able to teach it to the other guys.”
Now, as much as Bomber Nation cringes whenever Willy goes down in a heap, the club’s QB1 said his job is to get rid of the ball quickly. And with flashes the offence has shown, he believes the engine will soon be purring.
“I’ve never really worried about health. If I play smart and do what I need to do and get the ball out of my hands, I know our O-line is going to protect me and our guys are going to get open.”
“For me, it’s just going through my reads and getting the ball out. We have some pieces to do some great things this year. It was great to get in the backfield with Andrew Harris for that first game. I just feel very comfortable with him back there and we were communicating the whole time or talking in the huddle how we wanted to run things. He does a great job back there communicating with the O-line and the receivers. I think he’s going to bring a ton to our offence.
“And then you get Ryan Smith going, and when Weston Dressler gets back… we’ve got some young receivers out there who have done some good things. This is another big stepping stone for them tomorrow.”
LAST CHANCE TO IMPRESS
It was just 15 days ago when the Bombers were making introductions to each other on the first day of training camp. And now here they are about to wrap up their preseason with their second of two games. That doesn’t leave much time for new faces to make a lasting impression to grab a roster spot, let alone be a part of the starting-lineup discussion. That might not be fair, but it is the reality of CFL training camps.
That can also make the decision making for Mike O’Shea and his staff difficult as the club still debates who will land work, particularly at spots like receiver, defensive end, defensive back and along the offensive line. That evaluation doesn’t just mean throwing all the starters out there at once or lining up all the reserves together.
“You put Drew (Willy) in at the start with a combination of O-linemen and Andrew Harris and Ryan Smith and Darvin Adams and then you just sort of shift some parts here and there,” said O’Shea. “The guys that are really competing for spots, and there’s still a lot of that to figure out, you want to put them beside guys that you know have secured a spot. Ryan Smith and Darvin and Drew and Andrew Harris… you want to put them around those guys to see how they play with them.”
Just FYI, all CFL teams must reduce their rosters to 65 on Tuesday before having the final 46-man/10-player practice roster set by June 19th.
YOUNG CANADIANS, YOUNG CANADIANS, THEY WANT THE YOUNG CANADIANS
First, apologies to David Bowie for paraphrasing the chorus to his classic ‘Young Americans.’ But one of the more compelling storylines from last week’s win over Montreal was the handiwork of the team’s new Canadians. It was Trent Corney with a couple of sacks, it was Michael Couture stepping up when Jeff Keeping was injured. There was Rupert Butcher tipping a pass that was intercepted by Garrett Waggoner, Taylor Loffler registering two tackles and another on special teams…
Can they step up again in the preseason finale? More importantly, can they continue on their quick learning curve that will only serve to improve a club that long let its’ Canadian talent level decline?
REST VS. RUST
The great debate during the preseason is how much to play regulars vs. saving them for the real games. The Bombers left kicker Justin Medlock at home, along with defensive linemen Jamaal Westerman, Keith Shologan, Euclid Cummings and Jake Thomas, while Weston Dressler is still a little banged up and did not make the trip. Every one of those guys will be on the 46-man roster by next weekend.
The other vets who did make the trip, aside from the quarterbacks, might also make cameo appearances against Ottawa. And so, as tedious as it can be at times, that preseason revolving door will keep spinning.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
- #1 Jace Davis, REC
He was getting rave reviews at the start of the camp before being sidelined with an injury that kept him out of last week’s game against the Als. He returned to work on Friday as if he hadn’t missed a nanosecond and continues to impress. As much as there are some intriguing names in the receiving battle like Thomas Mayo, Fred Williams, Julian Talley, Gerrard Sheppard and Kevin Cone, a starting gig is Davis’ to lose.
- #33 Andrew Harris, RB
Ok, so he’s a lock to be on the team. But last week seemed like a bit of a tease for Bomber fans, as Harris had a spectacular TD on a screen pass called back by penalty and was limited to just three touches (two rushes, one catch).
- #65 Michael Couture, OL
There was a ton to like about the rookie lineman’s pro debut last week, especially after having his workload bumped up with Jeff Keeping’s injury. Couture is still as green as St. Paddy’s day, but if he can handle his own it may mean the team isn’t as desperate to find a veteran Canadian piece as a stop-gap while Keeping recovers from a knee injury that will likely keep him out for a third of the season.
- #91 Adrian Hubbard, DE
The opportunity doesn’t get any more inviting than this for the former Alabama starter. The Bombers have left three veterans along the D-line back home, giving Hubbard a glorious chance to grab a starting job. That said, Shayon Green, Nate Collins, Emmanuel Dieke, Padric Scott and Andrew Robinson are all in the nation’s capital, too, and aren’t about to just knuckle under and serve it up to Hubbard.
The Bombers’ 2016 draft class features a few Canadians from around these parts in Trent Corney (from nearby Brockville, Ont.); Frank Renaud of Windsor, Zach Intzandt and Rupert Butcher of London and free agent signee John Rush of Niagara Falls.
Butcher’s father, Robert – a doctor of ethics at University Hospital in London – will be in attendance. His son drew rave reviews earlier in camp from O’Shea as to his rapid improvement.
“It’s been steady,” said Butcher. “At first it was getting the rust off, but since then things have started to come together faster and faster. It’s been great. I’ve been lucky enough to have great coaches in college and so a lot of it has just been learning new terminology.
“I just want to show that I know what I’m doing, that I’m coachable and that I can keep improving so they’re willing to keep me.”