After three gruelling weeks of on-field workouts and off-field study sessions, training camp for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is officially in the rear-view mirror.
The roster, including the 12-player practice team and the five-man taxi squad, has been submitted to the CFL head office. Now that those tough decisions, and ensuing exit conversations, have concluded, preparations for a Week 1 matchup Thursday at IG Field against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will begin in earnest on Sunday.
But as we enter the weekend, there are still a few pressing questions — some of which are concerning — juicy storylines and observations by yours truly that are worth discussing. And worth watching out for as the Bombers officially open the 2021 CFL season after more than 20 months off.
So let’s get to it…
Is Harris good to go?
It’s the No. 1 question on everybody’s mind and one I’ve received the most from fans. Running back Andrew Harris went down with an injury early in camp and hasn’t been a full participant for weeks.
Head coach Mike O’Shea has downplayed the situation, reverting to a familiar talking point that experienced veterans, like Harris, don’t need to maximize reps in order to play. They know the playbook front to back and can be inserted into the lineup at a moment’s notice.
That can’t be it. Not after 20 months away from game action and not after Harris himself admitted he wasn’t always focused on football during the prolonged off-season. And nor should he have been, not with everything else he has going on between personal and business interests and the CFL keeping players in the dark for much of the last year and so.
Whether Harris will play or not should be answered early next week, based on how involved he is at practice. Bet against him at your own peril, but from what we know at this point, a 50-50 chance almost seems favourable.
What if Harris can’t go?
If Harris can’t play, then the Bombers likely stay with a Canadian at RB. Options include Johnny Augustine and Brady Oliveira (Kyle Borsa, who the Bombers took in the fifth round of May’s CFL Draft, is heading back to school).
The edge could go to Oliveira, as he’s looked good through camp and, unlike Augustine, hasn’t missed any time owing to injury. Augustine did play well, though, in the two games he started in 2019 while Harris was serving a suspension.
While both would be fine options, the Bombers are hoping No. 33 will be back and ready to go.
Adams on the mend
This could very well become a nothing burger by next week, but there must be some concern over the status of receiver Darvin Adams. Adams suffered an upper-body injury on June 20 and hasn’t practised since.
Instead, he’s been running around in a T-shirt and sweats, retrieving balls during drills and helping anyway he can, but until he’s practising and reeling in catches, he should be deemed questionable at best.
If Adams can’t play, that’ll be disappointing news for a player who has battled health issues his last few seasons and is coming off a relatively disappointing 2019. He did develop some great chemistry with quarterback Zach Collaros during their Grey Cup run, and the Bombers are hoping that can continue to grow and Adams can return to being a 1,000-yard receiver.
But if time is what he needs, there have been some players that have stood out and could be more than serviceable in a pinch. Atop the list is Kelvin McKnight and ArDarius Stewart.
The Bombers put a lot of confidence in rookie kicker Marc Liegghio by making him the lone pair of legs to start training camp. The hope was they wouldn’t have to bring anyone else in and that the lack of competition would aid in his progress over training camp.
Then plans changed. Liegghio started to struggle with field goals so when the Montreal Alouettes released Canadian kicker Tyler Crapigna ahead of the first roster cuts July 20, Winnipeg swooped in to sign him.
What’s important to know is Crapigna has never punted in the CFL; he’s mainly a place kicker. And Liegghio, who has punted admirably the last couple weeks, hasn’t been much better at field goals since Crapigna was brought on, shanking at least four attempts — ranging from 32 to 50-plus yards — wide left on the last day of camp Thursday.
I don’t think the Bombers know yet what they’re going to do for Week 1, even with both players making the team. But if Liegghio can’t show some consistency this week when it comes to making field goals, Winnipeg will likely dress a two-man unit, with Liegghio limited to punting duties.
The secondary situation
The Bombers were already auditioning for two positions in the secondary following the loss of Winston Rose (NFL) and Marcus Sayles (B.C. Lions). Then Mercy Maston was ruled out for the year with a torn Achilles, freeing up another spot at strong-side linebacker, which is an extension of the secondary.
There has been a lot of movement in this group throughout camp, though Brandon Alexander, Mike Jones, Nick Taylor and Josh Johnson, who the Bombers signed as a free agent after time in Edmonton, are all locks to start. But now that cuts have been made, there are clear front-runners for those absent starting spots.
Winnipeg hasn’t confirmed who will play where, as they continue to make those final decisions, but judging by the recent roster moves, there are some obvious players in the mix. Look out for Deatrick Nichols, DeAundre Alford and Alden Darby to push for a starting spot, among others.
Focus early on is always going to be on some of the new faces, as the Bombers try to plug holes in different areas of the roster. But I’d be remiss not to point out some of the stronger camps from returning players.
While no one stood out for having a bad camp — all veterans, for the most part, looked to be in shape — there are some that seemed to exceed expectations.
Kenny Lawler, who led the Bombers in receiving in 2019 with a modest 637 yards, looks primed for a breakout season. I don’t think he’s dropped a ball at camp and some of his catches were fun to witness. Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky have also been solid. Collaros looks confident running plays, and his arm is on point. The O-line will once again be the bread and butter of the offence.
Defensive end Willie Jefferson looks like someone who didn’t take a day off the last 20 months, and I’m genuinely concerned for opposing quarterbacks. Ditto for Adam Bighill, as he’s looked as in-shape as anyone and appears to have benefitted health wise over the long break.
The Bombers look ready to go and should be considered a top team in what will likely be a photo finish in a tough West Division race.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
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