It was symbolic that on the final day of Blue Bombers training camp Thursday, the air was noticeably thick, owing to the effects of the forest fires currently burning in the southern parts of the province.
By the end of the workout, though, the visible smoke that filled IG Field had finally settled, marking a fitting end to what time the players had to make a strong impression. As for the Bombers coaching staff, the conclusion of camp marks only the beginning of what will be some heated debates.
With more guys than they need, and with Friday’s deadline to determine the final roster looming, several decisions will need to be made. The fun, at least for some, will be over.
“We got a lot accomplished. I don’t think there were, besides a smoke day or something like that, logistically I don’t think there was a lot of stuff that was unexpected,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said.
“We pared down the training camp numbers as we went along a couple times and we’re left with some tough decisions which is ultimately what you’d like at the end of training camp, those tough decisions to make.”
The Bombers currently have 80 players on the roster, and will need to trim that number down significantly. A 45-man game roster, including one global player, will need to be determined, along with a 10-man practice roster and a five-man taxi squad.
The only difference between the taxi squad, which was created owing to COVID-19 and the fear players might get sick, and the practice roster is players on the taxi squad, if claimed by another team, must report to their new club and be inserted into the lineup right away. With a traditional practice roster player, claims must still be submitted but teams often find ways to keep their guy around, options that won’t be available with players on the taxi squad.
What will further complicate numbers is how many players are to be added to the injured list, either on the one- or six-game IR. Teams don’t need to submit their list of injuried players until the day before their first game. All players on the IR are paid their full salary.
Speaking of injuries, the Bombers fared relatively well on this front.
There are some notable absences, though, including running back Andrew Harris (lower-body) and receiver Darvin Adams (upper-body). Both haven’t practised for some time and should be considered questionable, at the very least, heading into Week 1. Preparation for Thursday’s season-opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats begins Sunday.
While the Saskatchewan Roughriders lost four players for the season, two of whom were starters, because of torn Achilles injuries, the Bombers lost just one in defensive back Mercy Maston. Maston was slated to start at the strong-side linebacker position, a spot he performed admirably during 2019’s Grey Cup championship run.
“When the team gets finalized, I do believe it’s up to the leaders in the dressing room to make sure it gets to be more like how they would want it to be like. Winning is good and winning with the right people is even better,” O’Shea said.
“There’s always gonna be some adjustment period that guys have now that they’ve made it. They’re so focused on making the team that some of the other stuff might just go over their heads. Once the team is finalized then there’s a bit more of that, that goes into educating the players on how it’s done.”
Quarterback Zach Collaros finished his first training camp with the team, after he was acquired at the 2019 trade deadline and led the Bombers to their first title in 29 years. He admitted the last three weeks has given him a higher level of comfort with the playbook, something he’s extremely excited to execute under the guidance of new offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce.
“A different camp, a whole different feel, obviously, with all the different rules and guidelines that we had to follow, starting off with the seven-day quarantine and starting the install for the offense in your hotel room,” Collaros said.
“We pretty much have everything in, and we’ve been working through situations here toward the end. Probably a less physical camp than a lot of guys are used to but we’re just trying to get ready for Week 1.”
Collaros noted the benefit of having a majority of the Cup-winning team back in the fold, to not only getting a good start to camp but to helping the newcomers, especially those unfamiliar with the CFL, get adjusted. That was especially important with the absence of a preseason.
Because of the restrictions owing to COVID-19, getting a chance to build relationships with teammates has been a challenge. That hasn’t made it impossible, but it has made it tougher to offer support to players who might be feeling the pinch of a professional tryout.
“I could see it. I can feel it. I mean, I think I felt that way my first three or four seasons in the CFL,” Collaros said. “I think I was always thinking to myself, asking what can I do after this if they cut me? And I was starting.”
The defence has also adjusted well. There will be some new faces in the secondary due to the loss of Winston Rose (NFL) and Marcus Sayles (B.C. Lions), as well as Maston. Those battles will be finalized next week as the Bombers determine who will be on their first-team defence in practice.
Defensive end Willie Jefferson sees no reason why the defence, especially the defensive line, can’t continue its strong play into 2021. He’s been impressed with the progress made by the returning players, and has been encouraged by how many of the new guys have fit in. Strong depth will be even more important this year, as the long layoff from missing the 2020 season will continue to wreak havoc when it comes to players’ health.
“It’s just preparation and mental focus, knowing that we haven’t had those two (preseason) games to practice on tackling, practice on alignment, assignments, crowd noise, fans and actual competition against other teams,” Jefferson said.
“Going out there off the jump and just having a real game that counts in the standings is gonna be different but the mental focus and the preparation leading up to this game, with the coaches and the organization, is gonna be big in terms of what teams look like in these first couple of weeks.”
firstname.lastname@example.org twitter: @jeffkhamilton
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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