The Ottawa REDBLACKS hit the field for the first time this season on Monday night at TD Place, where they’ll host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
They’re two teams in a different state of mind, Ottawa playing its first pre-season game and Winnipeg playing its last, but the end result is equally important.
For Henry Burris and the REDBLACKS it’s a chance to get their feet wet and their legs underneath them.
“Just starting that process of slowing the game down mentally,” said Burris, asked about the importance of Monday’s opener. “To come out and establish consistency, kind of get the feel of the game, get in rhythm with the guys.”
Burris will get the start and is expected to play most of the first half, while Head Coach Rick Campbell said Trevor Harris will also be mixed in as he gets a chance to run with the ones.
The first-team offence should get plenty of time on the field, including all four of Ottawa’s 1,000-yard receivers a year ago and a new-look offensive line, as the REDBLACKS take the field in front of the home fans for the first time since winning last year’s Eastern Final.
That Eastern Final produced a moment that’ll be forever itched in REDBLACKS history, as Greg Ellingson scored the game-winning touchdown in the game’s final minute to send Ottawa to the Grey Cup in just its second season back in the league.
The REDBLACKS lost in the Grey Cup, but head into 2016 with plenty of momentum after improving from 2-16 to 12-6 last year and winning the East Division title.
“We’re excited,” said Campbell. “The guys were talking in the meetings, just excited to get back out here in front of the home crowd. It’s supposed to be a nice night.”
Two things will be key for Campbell’s club: one, winning the game, and two, evaluation. The REDBLACKS are the last team to play a pre-season game and have until Wednesday to make some difficult decisions and trim down the roster.
Nearly half of Defensive Coordinator Mark Nelson’s 2015 defence has since departed, meaning training camp and these next two pre-season games will go a long way in determining the outlook of a unit that last season ranked number one in the CFL.
“Obviously evaluation’s a huge part of it,” said Campbell. “There are going to be some tough decisions that have to be made so we want to make sure we get a good look at all these guys.”
The offence, meanwhile, will closely resemble the one that ranked first in the league and helped the REDBLACKS reach the 103rd Grey Cup last season, led by the Most Outstanding Player in Burris. Only it’ll be without the offensive coordinator that put it all together in Jason Maas.
Monday’s pre-season game will also be about building confidence in first-year offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo’s offence.
“Some of the new wrinkles that we have in the offence, getting comfortable with some of those – especially in live game action,” said Burris.
For the Bombers, Monday night’s pre-season game is one last chance to get things right – the last dress rehearsal before the team’s regular season opener on June 24 at home against Montreal.
The Bombers won their pre-season opener in front of an excited and boisterous crowd in Winnipeg, 36-13 over the Montreal Alouettes. Andrew Harris dazzled the crowd on a touchdown that was called back while Drew Willy found early chemistry with Ryan Smith, but in the end it was the Bombers’ backups who made the difference with a flurry of second-half scoring led by kicker Sergio Castillo and quarterback Bryan Bennett.
The challenge for Head Coach Mike O’Shea is to balance two separate needs: to make sure his first-teamers are ready for the regular season; and to evaluate and determine roster spots.
“It’s a combination of things,” said O’Shea. “Winning’s important obviously, evaluation’s extremely important and then execution.
“Getting your group together, this is the last chance you have before playing a regular season game so it’s important all three phases start to learn to work together and execute at a high level with the guys they’re going to be around.”
The Bombers also want to see players competing for spots. O’Shea said there’s still plenty to figure out in the next two weeks before the start of the regular season. It starts at the defensive end position, where they have one of the league’s best at one end but are taking resumes to fill the spot opposite of Jamaal Westerman.
Westerman, Euclid Cummings, Keith Shologan and Jake Thomas are defensive linemen not making the trip, as O’Shea focuses on the competition in the trenches.
“We’ve still got eight or nine D-linemen here to evaluate to figure out where those pieces fit and that’s a pretty heated competition.”
The Bombers have less to figure out on the offensive side of the ball, where Willy is expected to play closer to a half of football. Wester Dressler will not play, but joining Willy will be new stars in Harris and Smith.
Monday evening is critical for that unit as it looks to execute Paul LaPolice’s offence in live action one last time before it all starts to count.
“We definitely want to get in a rhythm out there with our guys,” said Willy, who completed three of six passing attempts for 52 yards in the pre-season opener. “Just be successful on every drive. We’ve talked about ending each drive with a kick, so taking care of the ball.
“We’ve been working really hard with Coach LaPo and we think we’ve done some really good things so far in training camp,” he added. “We know there’s a long way to go and it all starts again on Monday night so go out there and put on a good show.”