WINNIPEG — Coach Mike O’Shea liked what he saw at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers rookie camp and is looking forward to the competition at training camp, which kicked off on Sunday.
“Our scouting department, (general manager) Kyle (Walters) and the guys have done a great job,” he says.
“We’ve got very good competition going into the main camp.”
The Bombers are looking for help in a lot of areas this season after finishing 2013 with just three wins.
They want a new kicker, stronger offensive and defensive lines and there are holes to fill at receiver. They’ve brought in stiff competition for Will Ford at running back, including NFL veteran Kevin Smith, who spent five seasons with the Detroit Lions, racking up 2,346 yards on the ground, 1,000 yards receiving and a total of 22 touchdowns.
“I think he’s pretty pleased with his performance and I know we are,” says O’Shea. “How long has he been out of football? A year probably, so he’s still getting his feet underneath him and he looks good.”
And he describes Smith as “very humble” and says he didn’t bring any attitude to camp because of his time in the NFL.
“First couple of days he was very quiet. I just had to engage him myself just to make sure he was breathing. He cracked a smile one time and he’s been smiling since. He’s put a few very impressive plays on tape for us to watch and I think it’s going to get better too, like I said he’s still getting his football legs back.”
Smith says he’s happy to get a chance to make the Bombers and is having the usual NFL-to-CFL adjustment issues.
“There’s 12 people on the field, it’s a little different from American football, you have the motions, but at the end of the day it’s still football so just adjusting to those minor things,” he says.
“And you know it’s a brand new playbook for me, so just getting the hang of that.”
But he says he doesn’t feel that rusty.
“Actually no. I was running some pretty good routes (at camp). I trained every day when I took a year off from the NFL when I wasn’t signed . . . I’m not peaking but I won’t call it rust.”
O’Shea also says he was pleased with what he saw of the defensive line additions this week at rookie camp.
“You want to find guys that get it. They get it,” he said.
One of those prospects on defence is versatile undrafted import Kenny Tate out of Maryland, who may have been passed over by NHL teams last year because of injury concerns.
“What’s not to like about him?” said O’Shea.
“I don’t know his history but I think he’s played every position in football probably and done it at a high level. He flies around and I think the most impressive thing for me is when you talk to him you understand that he really loves to play football.”
The Bombers also are looking for a new kicker and the competition right now is between domestic, Lirim Hajrullahu out of Western, and import, Brett Maher out of Nebraska.
“They both are showing their leg strength. They learn from (special teams co-ordinator) Pat (Tracey) extremely well.”
One has never played Canadian football and the other is a raw rookie, says O’Shea, but in the end the import ratio may be a decider.
“It might come down to just how the ratio fits and how our roster comes together. . . It’s just so far away from that right now.”
One position that has been filled is starting quarterback. The Bombers traded Canadian receiver Jade Etienne for Saskatchewan Roughriders backup Drew Willy and gave him the starter’s job immediately.
Willy says it felt good finally starting to throw some passes on the field and he likes some of the rookie receivers he has seen so far.
“It’s definitely a good combination of speed, quickness and height,” he says.
Receivers Mario Urrutia and Braylon Bell both measure in at six-foot-six and look like they might be good replacements for Chris Matthews (six-five), who was signed by the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.
“We’ve got some big boys out there which is always nice if you’re in trouble, put one up for them and they can make a play for you,” says Willy.
The quarterback who finished last season for the Bombers, Max Hall, was the only active one they brought back.
He says he isn’t worrying about being passed over for the starter’s job.
“That’s football. You can’t worry about that stuff,” he says.
“All you can worry about is yourself and getting better every day, helping your teammates, helping the football team.”
After a season that saw the team clean house from general manager down through the coaching staff, he says the mood seems a lot brighter and he likes what O’Shea brings to the team.
“It does feel a little bit like a fresh start,” hall said. “I think everybody is a little bit excited for the season.”