Wednesday, June 8, 2016


It might just be pre-season, but all eyes will be on Winnipeg’s Investors Group Field on Wednesday night for a number of reasons.
For one, football is back for the first time in more than six months, as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes open up pre-season action and usher in a new Canadian Football League season.
“Just to be able to make a full tackle for once,” said Bombers linebacker Khalil Bass. “It’s been over seven months since we’ve played an actual game and got to fully tackle somebody, so it’ll be fun.
“I’ve been feeling it for a few months now.”
Bass isn’t alone, and among him and other players anxious to hit the field are Bombers and Alouettes fans. Both teams will have some new wrinkles when they hit the field on Wednesday night including many new faces.
In Winnipeg, Head Coach Mike O’Shea said all of Andrew Harris, Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith will make their debuts and play as long as they need to. The offensive trio signed during the winter as part of General Manager Kyle Walters’ off-season makeover that also included the addition of Offensive Coordinator Paul LaPolice.
“They need to play as long as they need to play,” O’Shea said of his stars. “That’s a conversation we’re going to have with those guys to see how ready they feel. Generally we’d be on the same page with that.”
Drew Willy will get the start at quarterback but don’t expect him to play long. Meanwhile, with regards to the only real question mark on the offence, Kevin Cone gets the green light at wide receiver, a position that remains wide open heading into pre-season game one.
O’Shea said the focus was bringing in bigger targets to complement others in the receiving corps, but in the end the emphasis will be placed on finding the right chemistry.
“We need the best lineup, the best group of receivers out there that complement each other,” said O’Shea. “Obviously we brought in a bunch of guys with size to see how that looks for us, and we’re pleased because the bigger receivers we brought in are good athletes and smart players.”
Also vying for a chance to make an impact is punter Billy Pavlopoulos, who’s turned heads in camp but will have to take away punting duties from Justin Medlock, while Chris Randle and Matt Bucknor are locked in a heated duel to start at cornerback.
Sam Hurl, competing for a chance to start at middle linebacker, is one of just a few Bombers projected regulars who won’t be in the lineup.
While those battles are ones to watch throughout pre-season action, the Bombers’ first-team offence and defence will likely only play sparingly on Wednesday as O’Shea looks to give his rookies a chance to make an impression.
“It’s a pretty tough situation for them, in terms of they understand the business and it’s a very small window to make it in this game and it’s tough for rookies to displace veterans in that amount of time,” said O’Shea.
“But they’re going to get the opportunity to do that.”
For the visiting Alouettes, all eyes will be on the huddle throughout Wednesday’s matchup as Head Coach and General Manager Jim Popp brings all seven available quarterbacks with him to Winnipeg.
Kevin Glenn will lead the offence out of the gate while Popp indicated that national Brandon Bridge will likely be the second man out, but after that it’s anyone’s guess.
Among the other options is Vernon Adams, whom the Als acquired last month for a first round pick in a trade with the BC Lions.
“He’ll play, whether he plays in this game or next week – he’ll definitely play in the pre-season,” said Popp. The Als head coach says he won’t rush things with Adams, who along with Bridge and Glenn appears to have a roster spot locked up.
With plans to keep either four or five quarterbacks, questions surround whether Tajh Boyd or Rakeem Cato could be a casualty of the Alouettes’ depth at the position.
Another question for the Alouettes surrounds the offensive line, where for the first time since 2006 Josh Bourke won’t be lined up as the team’s left tackle this year. He left for Toronto as a free agent and on top of the recent sudden retirement of Dominic Picard, the Alouettes have a lot to determine on their five-man unit.
“We knew the day was coming, whether it was because of financial reasons or whether guys start aging – you draft players and you groom them.”
Popp said on Tuesday it’s a rarity that all three O-linemen the Als drafted this season – Philippe Gagnon, Sean Jamieson and Matthew Toppan – are competing for a chance to start, along with last year’s first round pick Jacob Ruby.
For Wednesday’s game the Als’ positional chart shows Ruby taking over the left tackle spot and Kristian Matte at centre, while Jake Piotrowski and the veteran Philip Blake occupy the guard positions. Veteran Jeff Perrett stands in his usual spot as the team’s right tackle.
“We’ve always done this with offensive linemen, we’ve had great depth,” said Popp. “We have great depth now. There’s some unknown because [some of the younger players] have to get in there and play.
“We knew the time was coming, we’re going to have to play somebody at tackle.”
Off-season addition and former NFL defensive lineman Vaughn Martin is listed on the positional chart and expected to play, while 2015 CFL All-Star and off-season free agent signing Jovon Johnson will make his debut at cornerback.
Duron Carter and Kenny Stafford are familiar faces back in Alouettes colours after leaving the team in 2015 but returning as free agents over the winter.
Outside of the O-line, the Alouettes will show a familiar configuration on both sides of the ball, including on offence where Offensive Coordinator Anthony Calvillo along with Jacques Chapdelaine continue installing a unit that’s been rebuilt from scratch.
Of course, don’t expect the Als or either team to show much on Wednesday night, as these teams meet again in roughly two more weeks on June 24 as they kick off the regular season in Winnipeg.

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