The annual casting calls started in the winter at free agent camps and on countless scouting missions. And they, in turn, led to the start of auditions last month.
Now the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are about to get some concrete evidence as to which of their new recruits have that coveted stage presence or freeze up and forget all their lines.
The Bombers’ first dress rehearsal of the 2017 season goes Saturday night in Regina against the Saskatchewan Roughriders at the spiffy new Mosaic Stadium. Winnipeg will travel west with 65 players, including all four quarterbacks – Matt Nichols, Dom Davis, Dan LeFevour and Austin Apodaca – their entire starting offensive line and three-fifths of last season’s starting secondary.
Staying at home will be mainstays like Andrew Harris, Weston Dressler, Jamaal Westerman, Ian Wild, Chris Randle, and Taylor Loffler, as well as injured starters like Maurice Leggett and Darvin Adams.
All that means the fresh faces and newcomers really have an opportunity to pop off the page, knowing full well that the lineup that steps on the field against the Edmonton Eskimos in the final dress rehearsal will feature mostly regulars fine-tuning their games for the opener.
“We have to make great decisions and very tough decisions for our football club in the next week or so,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “We’ve got to make sure we’re getting a good enough look at everybody so we can make the right decisions, good decisions.”
Those decisions will be based on some basic factors: the Bombers want their troops to play hard, play fast, and be assignment-sound. Asked how a player can separate himself from the pack, O’Shea laid out a straightforward gameplan.
“Make plays. Effort that stands out on film, compared to everybody else,” said O’Shea. “Those are important things. With that, making sure they execute at a high level and be right in what they do. You show awesome effort and you show the ability to make plays, you’re going to get noticed.”
Unofficially, close to half of the roster Saturday – 30 of 65 – have never suited up for a CFL game, including 2017 first-overall draft pick Faith Ekakitie.
“Coaches keep saying, ‘Don’t play the game before you actually get there,’” Ekakitie said. “So I keep trying to tell myself you’ve got 24 hours before kickoff so just relax right now, take care of my body and go back and keep going over the playbook over and over and over again.
“I feel a lot more comfortable with the playbook now. There’s still a couple of things here and there I’m still a little bit iffy about. But compared to when I first got here a couple of weeks ago, I’m definitely a lot more comfortable. I’m ready to go out there and put my best foot forward.
“Coach’s goal and the goal for all of us is to just go out there and compete hard and play fast.”
The Bombers lineup will also feature three players with local amateur football connections: University of Manitoba wide receiver Derek Yachison and two members of the Winnipeg Rifles of the Canadian Junior Football League, safety Andrew Ricard and wideout Xander Tachinski.
And for Tachinski, who attended camp last year but did not get into a game, Saturday night is another important step in his development. Doesn’t hurt, too, to be sharing the same field and meeting room with veterans like Weston Dressler and Clarence Denmark.
“It’s been incredible to see how guys like that do the things that make them great pros, whether it’s taking care of their bodies after practices to the details in how they watch film, to the discussions they have with coaches,” Tachinski, a commerce student at the U of M, explained. “For me, it’s like osmosis… whatever they do gets soaked up by me. The injured guys like Addison Richards and Matt Coates have been very helpful to me too, whether it’s helping break down a play or giving me feedback.
“Taking a step back and as a Winnipegger, it’s going to be awesome. It’s a step in my career and it will be a great experience to reflect on as I move forward. I’m very excited.”
TO BE 2, OR NOT TO BE 2
Dom Davis has played the under-study for two years now, studying his lines and rehearsing his part over and over again. And while Saturday night is officially the a dry run before the regular season, it’s go-time for the 27-year-old veteran.
The Bombers love Davis’ athleticism and have seen massive growth in his understanding of the game in Paul LaPolice’s offence over the past year. All of which will mean very little if he can’t translate that into moving the offence against the Riders. Davis didn’t throw a single pass last season, and in his lone career start – a nothing-at-stake loss to the Toronto Argonauts at the end of the 2015 season – he completed 16 of 25 passes for 169 yards with 0 TDs and 0 interceptions. It was the kind of middling performance that didn’t answer any questions about his ability to lead an attack. Now he must put together some concrete evidence to back up the club’s faith in him.
Dan LeFevour, meanwhile, has long been described as a ‘gamer’ – the kind of QB who might not make your jaw drop in practice, but gets it done on game day. He’s a different body type than Davis at 6-3, 230, seems to be most dangerous when getting outside the pocket, and with his size, can be a nightmare to bring down. Both men say their job is to push Matt Nichols – a noble notion, for sure – but they are both fighting for the No. 2 gig.
“It’s been too many days against these guys… it’ll be nice to play against a different team, for sure,” said LeFevour. “You want to show up and be the same guy every day, so just playing the same way you have at practice is important. It’s important to play consistent and control what you can control. We’ve got practices and they’re all important. This is no different. It’s a little bit different stage and you’re going against different guys, different looks than what you’ve seen in practice, but every day is important at this point.”
Austin Apodaca, the hard-throwing New Mexico product, also figures to get some snaps. His job isn’t so much to push Davis or LeFevour, but do enough to keep management from tinkering with the idea to bring in another challenger for the developmental QB job.
THE OTHER JOB INTERVIEWS
The Bombers are looking for answers at more than just the No. 2 QB spot. As has been stated often through the mini-camp, rookie camp, and main camp, there are openings at middle linebacker, in the receiving corps, possibly in the secondary and at kick returner.
The juiciest battle has been at the middle linebacker spot, as the club seeks to find a replacement for Khalil Bass, now a member of the Ottawa REDBLACKS. Canadian Sam Hurl has been getting a ton of work with the first defence in an effort to give the club even more ratio flexibility, but import Kyle Knox – who dressed for 11 games last year – is atop the depth chart for Saturday’s game.
“It’s very exciting,” said Knox. “It’s been a long offseason and it’s great to have your cleats back on the grass and be ready to hit some people. It’s a fun game. When you play against your own teammates for weeks it kind of gets boring. You learn each other’s tendencies, but then when you actually get out there on the real field and the lights are on and you’re able to fly around at 100 miles per hour and not hold anything back, it’s a great feeling.”
THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS
Arguably no offseason signing in the CFL generated more chatter than the Roughriders’ addition of Vince Young, the former Texas star and NFL pro bowler who is trying to make a comeback after being away from the game for three years since a stint with the Cleveland Browns in 2014. It was a swing-for-the-fences-type move by the Riders, who know they have veteran Kevin Glenn ready to assume the starting chores. Young, by all accounts of those who have seen him at the team’s mini-camp in Florida and training camp in Saskatoon, has been inconsistent in shaking off all that rust – offering glimpses at his former self one day and then struggling the next.
Earlier this week, Young pulled a hamstring, meaning more reps for former Bomber Bryan Bennett, Canadian Brandon Bridge and Marquise Williams. The question now in Riderville is whether Young gets another crack at this when he gets healthy, or if this latest setback is the permanent push to retirement.
5 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#56 Faith Ekakitie, DT: You don’t get selected first overall in any draft and then not have a ton of eyeballs on you immediately. Ekakitie has shown growth in this camp as he’s become more comfortable making the conversion from the NCAA to the CFL. He plays a position in which he is more piano mover than piano player – he’s asked to do a lot of grunt work – but Bomber coaches and fans will be closely monitoring what kind of a force he could be in the trenches.
#22 Matt Smalley, DB/KR: A late addition to the Bombers training-camp roster – his first practice was on Monday – Smalley has had a phenomenal first few days of work. He’s flashed solid cover skills and has picked off passes this week while also showing hints at his return ability. We told you of Smalley’s story earlier in the week and he has proven to be a quick study to the point that he has likely already moved ahead of other defensive-back prospects on the depth chart.
#93 Curtis Johnson, DT: He’s a big, likable character who goes by ‘Poop’ but he has already shown the abilities to dominant along the line of scrimmage. He’s got tackle size with defensive-end feet and that’s a good combination.
#83 Ryan Lankford, SB: The former Rider brings some experience to the receiving corps after dressing for eight games last year. There aren’t many holes in the Bomber depth chart here with Darvin Adams, Weston Dressler, Clarence Denmark and Julian Feoli-Gudino – along with Kenny Stafford – all working with the No. 1 unit. But there’s a lot to Lankford’s game to like, too.
#50 Kyle Knox, LB: He headed into camp as the leading contender to land the middle-linebacker job left vacant by the departure of Khalil Bass to Ottawa. But with Sam Hurl getting a lot of the reps with the starters, the narrative has changed. Here’s his chance to change it back.
Not dressing because of injury for the Bombers are: LB Maurice Leggett, DB Kevin Fogg, DB Abu Conteh, WR Addison Richards, DT Ian Marouf.
USELESS STAT DEPT
The Bombers haven’t gone 2-0 in a preseason since 1995, although they did go 1-0-1 in the 2000 preseason. Winnipeg is 6-17-1 in preseason action dating back to 2005.
“Winning matters, it really does. It validates to the guys that the work is paying off. All the work they do in the offseason and in training camp is paying off and it’s going to put them in a good position to win games.”