June 19, 2011

Irving: 4 battles to watch in Bombers’ camp

Bob Irving

This might be surprising, but for a 4-14 team the Winnipeg Blue bombers will not have a lot of changes in 2011. At least not in the starting lineup.

Head coach Paul LaPolice gets tired of hearing about all the close games the Bombers played in 2010, how they weren’t really a 4-14 team.

Says LaPolice, “One of the things we all have to understand is we were 4-14. Yes, we lost a lot of close games, but we were a 4-14 team.”

But when it comes to making dramatic changes in the wake of what would normally be viewed as a disastrous season, LaPolice says, “We made a lot of changes last year and we believe we have found most of the players who can make us successful. We don’t see any need to make major changes this year.”

And so, with one pre-season game down and one more to go, it’s conceivable the Bombers could field as many as 20 of the same starters they had at the end of 2010, providing there are no injuries to deal with between now and the July 1st opener in Hamilton.

Still, there is competition, and here’s a look at four areas where decisions must be made before the clash with the Ticats at Ivor Wynne Stadium to kick-off 2011:

1. Who will replace CFL sack leader Philip Hunt at defensive end?

Hunt’s departure to the NFL was the Bombers’ biggest off-season loss. There is no shortage of candidates to replace Hunt and this competition is as wide open as they get.

Kenny Mainor from Troy University, Northeastern product Jason Vega, Tennessee State’s Remond Willis, Bryant Turner of Alabama-Birmingham, and former Calgary Stampeder Fernand Kashama have all had their moments during camp. The final pre-season game will determine who starts the season. It’s also possible Hunt’s permanent replacement isn’t even in Winnipeg as of yet.

2. Who will be the No. 2 quarterback?

Buck Pierce is firmly entrenched as the starter. And going into training camp Joey Ellliott was the odds on favorite to be No. 2. Elliott started the final two games of 2010 and showed promise.

However, Alex Brink has had a solid camp and played arguably as well as Elliott in the pre-season opener in Montreal. Elliott still has the inside track, although it’s fair to say LaPolice and GM Joe Mack would probably feel a lot more comfortable about their backup quarterback situation if one of those guys really emerged in the last pre-season finale against the Argos this week.

3. How will the starting offensive line shake down?

Essentially there are seven candidates for five starting jobs.

Brendon LaBatte, still only 24 years old and three seasons under his belt as a starter, is viewed as one of the most gifted young Canadian linemen to coming along in years and is assured a starting spot. But exactly where here will play is the question.

LaBatte played guard his first three seasons, but it was decided in the off-season to give him more work at center during training camp. And his performance so far poses a serious challenge to incumbent Obby Khan as the team’s starting center.

Wherever LaBatte settles in, it will leave Khan, Steve Morley and second year player Chris Greaves fighting it out for the two remaining Canadian starting spots in the interior of the line.

Meanwhile, the Bombers are committed to starting two import tackles. Kelly Butler and Andre Douglas were the starters last year, but veteran Glenn January has recovered from a torn pectoral muscle and should not to be counted out.

4. Who will emerge as the second starting Canadian receiver?

The way the Bombers ratio sets up, they will go with three import receivers: Terrence Edwards, Greg Carr and T.J. Harris. The other two spots will be filled by Canadians.

Cory Watson, in his second year from Concordia, has already nailed down one of the Canadian starting spots, leaving Kito Poblah, Aaron Hargreaves, David McKoy and first round draft pick Jade Etienne fighting for the other spot.

Hargreaves came to camp lighter and quicker, but he has been hurt for over a week and is falling behind. McKoy has been steady as he tries to resurrect a career that has been derailed by knee problems. Etienne was overwhelmed when rookie camp began, but the 21-year-old from the University of Saskatchewan has made steady progress and was impressive in his first pre-season game.

Poblah, the Bombers’ supplemental draft pick this year, made a big impression early, but has also suffered a setback due to a minor Achilles tendon injury. Poblah is expected to play in the second pre-season game, and if he stays healthy, he is a good bet to join Watson in the starting receiver rotation.

As in all training camps, there are unanswered questions in Winnipeg. Still, despite posting the worst record in the league in 2010, the Bombers believe the core of players they assembled last year, with a few improvements, will make them a team to be reckoned with in 2011.