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WINNIPEG — The CFL pre-season schedule kicks off on Monday evening exactly how the regular season will, as the Toronto Argonauts visit the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for a meeting at Investors Group Field.
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Yet to be determined is exactly how the starting lineups will take shape in the June 26th season opener, with both teams entering 2014 amid sizable changes.
No team transformed its identity more than the Bombers this off-season, who are set to debut a new starting quarterback and rookie head coach – all under a re-constructed head office led by General Manager Kyle Walters.
For a team under some pressure to find its bearings back in the league’s West Division following a tough 2013 campaign, a pre-season game is no less significant than any regular season one.
“In my mind right now, I don’t think the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are in a position to rest anybody,” rookie head coach Mike O’Shea told BlueBombers.com.
At this time last year the 43-year-old was a member of the Argos’ brain-trust, where he spent four seasons as Special Teams Coordinator.
While things were a little different there with established star quarterback Ricky Ray barely playing in pre-season games, he knows he won’t have the same luxury in his first spin as the front man.
“I believe that we need to play everybody and give them valuable repetitions against good opponents that you need to beat,” he said. “Right now I would think guys need to play, they need to get in there against an opponent other than our defence.”
That applies most to Drew Willy, who the Bombers announced would be their starting quarterback shortly after acquiring him from Saskatchewan in exchange for non-import receiver Jade Etienne. While still unproven, he’s enjoyed success in brief stints with nine career touchdown passes to just five interceptions, to go with a quarterback rating of 99.1.
Willy joins the list of young pivots trying to shoulder the load for the Bombers in recent years, but while some are skeptical, so far the University of Buffalo product has earned the confidence of his coaching staff.
“They say he’s grasping it all very quickly and he’s taking the classroom out on the field, he’s making quick decisions and when they process all the numbers he looks good,” said O’Shea. “It comes down to decision-making, and he’s doing it at a rapid pace.”
O’Shea said all four quarterbacks on the roster are expected to play on Monday, including Max Hall, however the focus will inevitably rest on Willy, the team’s biggest off-season addition – the one tasked with leading a different-looking Bomber squad into a brand new era.
Also making their debuts for Winnipeg will be receiver Nick Moore, who arrived from BC as a free agent; running backs Paris Cotton and Nic Grigsby; second overall pick and tackle Matthias Goosen; linebackers Ejiro Kuale and Korey Banks; and defensive back Donovan Alexander, among others.
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On one hand the Argos are in a similar situation as the Bombers, as newly-hired defensive coordinator Tim Burke takes over for the departed Chris Jones in trying to prop up a defence barely even recognizable just two years removed from winning a Grey Cup.
Only Matt Black and Jalil Carter remain from the championship team, as this year they’ll have to cope with key departures that include Patrick Watkins, Robert McCune, and Khalif Mitchell.
On the other hand, though, almost everything is settled offensively, save for the running back position left open by the retirement of Chad Kackert due to injury. Ray won’t dress for the pre-season opener and neither will Chad Owens, leaving second-string pivot Trevor Harris under centre along with a stable of young receivers getting their first look at CFL action.
Argos fans will get a glimpse into the future with both Matt Sewell and Tyler Holmes expected to play on the left side of the line, but outside of that all eyes will be on the Argo backfield, where the next starting running back remains unknown.
With Kackert now on the coaching staff and Jerious Norwood released last week, newcomers Anthony Coombs, Jeremiah Johnson, and Steve Slaton join returnees Anthony Woodson and Curtis Steele in what should be an exciting battle for the starting position.
“We’ve got a group of guys that’s really good, and any of us could be the number one back so you’ve just gotta come out here, put your head down, do what the coaches ask you to do, do a little bit more and just be crisp out there,” Johnson told Argonauts.ca.
Coombs may be the most intriguing option after the Argos traded up to select him third overall in May’s 2014 Draft. He’s already being compared to some of the top Canadian talent in the CFL, including the likes of Andrew Harris and the Argos’ own Andre Durie.
Fans may want to temper their expectations a little as he develops, but Coombs is very much in the discussion when it comes to the vacant spot.
“The game’s coming to me each day, I’m starting to get better,” Coombs told the team’s official site. “It’s slowing down for me a bit more so I’m just trying to get better each day.”
“The competition is fierce, we’re all making plays out there and we’re all trying to compete a little better and whoever steps up I feel we’ll have a really good running back position this year for the Argos.”
If he’s going to claim the starting position as a rookie, he’ll have to show the coaching staff he can excel in pass protection. Keeping Ray upright is the number one priority for any back in third-year head coach Scott Milanovich’s system.
“That’s the hard thing about our tailback, is we want a guy that can make you miss and is great in the open field, but has enough courage and strength to be a great protector for Ricky,” said Milanovich. “Those guys can be hard to find.”
The Argos will also try different options on kick and punt returns, as they consider letting Owens focus more on his role as a slotback.
Kickoff is at 8:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN.