With 27 defensive backs in training camp, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers might want to hand out some name tags to the secondary.
One thing the team will be handing out Wednesday after four days of light field work is shoulder pads as they’re beginning to ramp up the intensity at training camp.
Reps will be hard to come by, but the new faces — the majority of whom don’t have CFL experience — will have to find ways to stand out and make sure their names are known.
“They certainly have to make any of the plays that come their way and then they probably got to make some plays that weren’t supposed to be theirs,” said head coach Mike O’Shea on his group of DBs.
“… we need guys that are going to make plays and are gonna be in the right place at the right time.”
— Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea
“I do think if they sit back and wait for things to come to them, they’re probably going to be left behind. Obviously, we look at their feet and how active they are, how quickly they pick up the defence, but we need guys that are going to make plays and are gonna be in the right place at the right time.”
One defensive back that’s known for being in the right place at the right time is 30-year-old Josh Johnson. He’s played for the B.C. Lions, Ottawa Redblacks, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and most recently the Edmonton Elks in 2019. He also has eight NFL games to his name as he suited up for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016. Originally signed by the Bombers for the 2020 season, the club re-signed him to keep him in the fold for 2021.
Johnson’s still getting used to wearing Blue and Gold, but he’s already established himself as a leader.
“I actually like having the guys come talk to me and let them pick my brain. It actually helps me get back in my game and makes me polish up things that I need to do,” said Johnson, who played college ball for the Purdue Boilermakers.
“Honestly, we have a great group of young guys that are willing to learn. You have some guys that have played in the NFL, you have some guys that have never been to Canada, so, it’s gonna be big experience for all of us, but at the same time, it’s going to be a lot of fun because I’m just ready to see guys actually get into playing ball again.”
Johnson said the cancelled 2020 season was his first year without playing since 2013. As much as he missed being on the field, the time away from the game came at a good time for him. It allowed Johnson to spend as much time as possible with his grandfather, who lost his fight with cancer two months ago, and cope with his family. To honour his grandfather’s legacy, Johnson’s been wearing shirts in camp that say ‘Superman: Craig Strong.’
“Honestly, we have a great group of young guys that are willing to learn. You have some guys that have played in the NFL, you have some guys that have never been to Canada, so, it’s gonna be big experience for all of us…”
— Josh Johnson
“It’s a Craig Strong thing that we (started) at home. He was our Superman and he fought cancer for six years so we came up with different shirts,” Johnson said.
“You might see me wear a yellow one, I have a black one, I have different colours. I have a shirt with him on it. Don’t be surprised if you see me with a Superman Craig Strong shirt. It’s just supporting my granddad.”
With all-star corners from 2019 in Winston Rose (Cincinnati Bengals) and Marcus Sayles (B.C. Lions) moving on, the Bombers need Johnson to be a big time contributor. It’s a job linebacker Adam Bighill thinks Johnson is up for. Without being asked specifically about Johnson, Bighill raved about his team’s new DB.
“To me, Josh Johnson is a guy who’s a true professional. I’ve played with him before. He fits in, he understands the game really well. He’s very versatile. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do for us and obviously he’s a huge, huge part of our defence now which is fantastic,” Bighill said.
The defence was rolling in the three playoff games in 2019 and defensive back Mike Jones was a key reason for that. He spent a lot of time on the team’s practice roster, but he got called up when it mattered most as he started the regular season finale and the entire playoff run. He was sensational in all three playoff games, most notably the Grey Cup where he had three pass knockdowns, four tackles and an interception.
“Being a practice player didn’t put me down or anything, but it made me more hungry,” said the 25-year-old who played his senior season at Temple University.
“Making those plays in the playoff run, it was really due time, it was due, I had to do that. Being on that practice roster really put me in a place where I needed to go make some plays once I did get my opportunity.”
The practice squad won’t be in the cards for Jones this year as he’s also expected to help offset the blow of losing Rose and Sayles. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jones start at boundary corner and Johnson slotted in at boundary halfback in Week 1 on Aug. 5 at IG Field against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Veteran defensive backs Mercy Maston, who also plays strong-side linebacker, and Nick Taylor are also back from 2019 and are expected to have important roles, the same goes for safety Brandon Alexander.
“Those definitely are big shoes to fill,” Jones said.
“That boundary side is a huge side to fill… For a DB to come in at Week 1, you’re really going to have to match those interceptions, that gameplay, and the smarts that those two brought to that side. We’ve got some challenges to overcome, but I think we’re good.”
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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