WINNIPEG — When the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers meet in their pre-season finale on Wednesday, Bombers’ head coach Paul LaPolice will finally get a chance to set his order at quarterback behind starter Buck Pierce.
At least, for now.
Alex Brink and Joey Elliott spent their first two years as Bombers battling it out for playing time behind the oft-injured Pierce, and as they enter their third season with a clean bill of health and a couple of years of CFL experience under their belts, the competition is hot.
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While most of the starters are already settled, many of Elliott and Brink’s teammates are in the same boat – trying to improve their chances of sticking around. At this point, LaPolice might hope Wednesday’s game makes roster decisions a little easier, rather than more difficult.
“It may put the confidence in the coaches and myself to say ‘We’re going to keep this kid around, he needs to be on our reserve or our practice squad’,” LaPolice told reporters.
“We’re going to have difficult decisions because there’s a lot of talented guys.”
The third-year coach says he plans to name Pierce’s backup following Wednesday’s game.
One starting job that is up for grabs is at punter, with import Eric Wilbur and Canadian Mike Renaud competing for the starting role. Both have put on a good showing in camp so far, but because of the import, non-import ratio, Renaud is thought to have the inside track unless Wilbur can outperform him in a major way.
LaPolice says most of his starters will be on the field for about half the game, but some veteran faces will continue to be missing from the lineup, including offensive lineman Glenn January and Andre Douglas, along with slotback Cory Watson – all out with injuries.
“You’d like all the vets to at least get some game experience so it’s unfortunate some of the guys will maybe miss both pre-season games but it’s out of our control,” said LaPolice.
Pierce, meanwhile, will look to make the most of his time under centre by building chemistry with a few new receivers, including rookie import Chris Matthews.
“Physically he’s as good as I’ve seen,” Pierce said about Matthews. “He’s a guy that poses great matchup advantages for us with size and speed. He’s a smart kid . . . We’re expecting big things out of him. We’re going to put him in a position to make plays.”
This game will also see the return of 24-year-old non-import receiver Kito Poblah, who missed much of last season due to injuries.
For the visiting Ticats, Wednesday’s game will be important for the bubble players to get one last chance to earn a roster spot. But at the same time, it’s also a dress rehearsal for the veterans as the regular season looms.
“A lot of guys are just trying to fight for jobs, and to make the team you have to make sure you’re prepared, make sure you’re in the right place, and when you do get an opportunity to make a play, you have to make that play,” non-import linebacker Kevin Eiben told Ticats.ca.
“I think this is very important for the rookies, but also for the guys that are going to be getting into the regular season.”
The Ticats also have most positions set heading into the regular season, but one of the biggest storylines will be how they can fill the voids of rush ends Stevie Baggs and Justin Hickman.
Baggs was cut loose this off-season after a colossal drop in production, finishing 2011 with just five sacks in 18 games. Hickman’s departure was more favourable for him, as the 26-year-old landed a job with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts following a 13-sack season, which tied a league high.
Free agent signing Greg Peach is expected to make an impact for the Ticats’ pass rush this season after leaving the Eskimos, while former third round NFL draft pick of the New England Patriots Shawn Crable also joined the Ticats in the off-season and is now slated to start opposite Peach.
How those two settle in will go a long way in determining just how successful defensive coordinator Casey Creehan’s defence can be.
Creehan, who joined the Ticats this season after coaching with Winnipeg last year, says he’ll be looking for execution from his players on Wednesday.
“In this league you play the same seven opponents 18 times, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m going to be able to scheme them all those times,” Creehan told Ticats.ca. “We’ve got to out-execute them, and so right now we’re just being very basic and we want to go out there and play hard and just try to execute.”
Wednesday’s matchup will be the first game of 2012 played at Canad Inns Stadium, which the Bombers thought they’d seen the last of in 2011.
Construction delays mean the new Investors Group Field on the campus of the University of Manitoba won’t be ready until next season.
The Bombers and Ticats meet three times in the regular season, with the first battle not scheduled until Week Eight on August 16, also in Winnipeg.
Tonight’s meeting kicks off at 8pm ET and can be seen on TSN2.