Positional Preview: Specialists

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers open rookie camp on May 11th with main training camp following on May 15th. This is the first installment of our annual positional-preview series leading up to the first day.

There’s a certain rhythm to placekicking with the long snapper, holder and kicker all working in unison before the ball is airborne and sailing through the uprights.

And for years that last part – the ball sailing through the uprights part — was something the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and their fanbase saw Justin Medlock & Co. pull off with the consistency of a sunrise and sunset. After all, ‘Money’ Medlock, a future hall of famer, boasted a career field-goal percentage of 86.5 and was even better for the Blue Bombers in the postseason with a sparkling percentage of 90.

Now – and fans should brace themselves here as we pull off the band-aid — that scenario certainly changed last year following Medlock’s retirement in what could politely be described as an ‘inconsistent’ performance from the Blue Bombers kicking crew.

Oh sure, the 2021 season ended with the Blue Bombers showered in confetti after Sergio Castillo was sensational in going 5-for-5 in the Grey Cup win, but with the veteran kicker having signed as a free agent in Edmonton this winter, the very same storyline that dominated a good chunk of last year will be looming again when the Blue Bombers open camp in 10 days.

Consider this: Castillo was 12-of-15 (80%) in the field-goal department and 8-of-9 (88.9%) on converts in his five games with Winnipeg – including playoffs – after being acquired from the B.C. Lions for a third-round draft pick in the 2022 CFL Draft.

The other three men who handled the placekicking chores last year – Tyler Crapigna, Marc Liegghio and Ali Mourtada – combined to go 57.1% (16-of-28) in field-goal attempts. Put it all together and Winnipeg’s 62.2 field-goal percentage was the worst in the entire Canadian Football League – the lowest percentage in these parts since 2007 (61%).

Blue Bombers management still has a belief in both Mourtada and Liegghio, and there is a thought that the narrowing of the hashmarks for this season will help boost their percentages. That said, GM Kyle Walters did indicate that one more placekicker could be added to the roster by the time camp opens.

“I think in the spirt of competition we’d like to have a little more options for the guys,” he said.

Veteran long-snapper Mike Benson returns, but even the holder on kicks will be different, as No. 2 QB Sean McGuire has retired from football. As well, this week’s Global Draft saw two Australian punters were selected – Tom Hackett and Michael Sleep-Dalton, both of whom kicked in the NCAA – with Hackett apparently poised to put his name on a contract soon.

All of this is to say the kicking storyline, steady for so long courtesy the foot of Medlock, is once again going to be under the microscope.

TRAINING CAMP 2022 PREVIEW: A LOOK AT THE SPECIALISTS

THE RETURNEES:

Placekicker/punter: Marc Liegghio, P/K; Ali Mourtada, K
Long-snapper: Mike Benson
Punt returns: Janarion Grant
Kickoff returns: Janarion Grant

IMPACT NEWCOMER: DB TYRELL FORD

Janarion Grant has proven to be an excellent punt and kickoff returner for the Blue Bombers, so it’s not like the club is desperate for help in that department. But Ford – the team’s first pick in this week’s CFL Draft – is a dangerous punt returner who also posted the fastest 40 time at the National Combine at 4.42.

He was fourth in the OUA in punt-return average with Waterloo last year (12.6 yards) and could provide the return game with another weapon.

X FACTOR: TOM HACKETT, P

His credentials are jaw-dropping. Hackett was twice honoured with the Ray Guy Award (2014, 2015) as the top punter in the NCAA during his days at Utah, was a three-time All-Pac-12 1st Team All-Star (2013-15) and was named to the Pac-12 All-Century Team. He had a look as an undrafted free agent with the New York Jets in 2016 and since then… well, here’s where things get interesting.

Hackett has worked in media in Salt Lake City since then, for ESPN radio and TD and he has co-hosted a podcast. He has kept up with his craft, founding Tom Hackett punting in 2018, and it will be fascinating to see if he’s still got the skills that made him such a star in college.

NOTABLE NUMBER: 50.3

Marc Liegghio came to the Blue Bombers last season with a dandy resumé, having finished his college career at Western with a field-goal percentage of 92. As mentioned above, he was good on just five of his eight tries in his three games as the placekicker, but the misses – from 56, 47 and 48 yards – came from an average distance of 50.3 yards. What hurt his cause was the three missed converts he had in eight attempts.

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