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Kyle Walters has been doing this general manager thing long enough to understand the importance of not speaking in hyperboles and instead adhering to the principle of trying to under-promise and over deliver.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM is part of a crew that has put together the second-best regular season record in the Canadian Football League to the Calgary Stampeders over the last three years but – and yes, yes, yes, they’re aware – have yet to see it pay off on the last Sunday in November.
“I like our roster,” the Bombers GM stated during a media conference call on Monday. “The general sentiment in that locker room is we’ve had a couple of good years. We just need to take that next step.
“You can’t just turn it on halfway through the year, particularly in the West where if you lose two or three games you think you maybe should have won in the summer you’re not going to win the West. It just doesn’t happen like that. You need to start Day 1 training camp competing and pushing knowing that anything, the slightest fall, means it’s highly likely you’re going to be out of winning the Western Division. And the best way of getting to the Grey Cup is to win that West and it starts with Day 1 of training camp.”
The Bombers – or wannabe Bombers – will first step on the field Wednesday afternoon with the first of three rookie camp sessions. Walters weighed in on that and took a peek ahead to the scheduled opening of main camp on Sunday in his media session.
Here are the highlights…
The CFL designates a rookie as a player with less than seven games played to his name. That means Wednesday’s session will include, among others, the likes of cornerback Chris Humes, guard Geoff Gray, receiver Corey Washington and receiver/returner Charles Nelson – all of whom played in the regular season finale last year.
And the goal of rookie camp?
“It’s nice (for the rookies) to get their feet wet,” said Walters. “They get in the organization, learn where everything is and just go through a couple of days before the veterans show up. The ultimate goal is to give these guys the best opportunity to compete for jobs with a couple extra days of learning for them and get comfortable with their surroundings before the vets show up and the real competition begins.”
Rookie camp will open with newcomer Kevin Anderson, who spent time with the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance of American Football and attended mini-camp in Florida last month, pitching to receivers.
Also in attendance will be University of Ottawa pivot Sawyner Buettner as part of the CFL’s QB apprentice program. Buettner, who hails from Moose Jaw, threw for 1,470 yards with 14 TDs and five interceptions last year for the Gee-Gees in eight games.
Veteran QBs like Matt Nichols, Chris Streveler and Bryan Bennett are able to throw at rookie camp if they so choose, but Walters said he wasn’t sure if any of that group would step on the field on Wednesday.
The new wrinkle to rookie camp this year will be the presence of the four ‘global’ players the Bombers drafted this off-season.
That list includes German linebacker Thiadric Hansen as well as Mexican defensive backs Sergio Perez and Eduardo Reyes, and kicker Gabriel Ortiz.
The Bombers announced the signing of four more players from their 2019 draft class in running back Brady Oliveira, defensive lineman Connor Griffths, centre Asotui Eli and defensive back Kerfalla Exumé. They join defensive back Nick Hallet and defensive tackle Tariq LaChance as having signed and leaves first rounders Drew Desjarlais (OL) and Jonathan Kongbo (DL) and receiver Malik Richards (5th round) as unsigned.
“That’s normal,” said Walters. “The first-round guys take a little bit longer and with the time between the draft and training camp less this year it put a little bit of pressure on things. We’ll see. We’re in talks. I’m sure things will get sorted out, we just don’t know when.”
Walters was asked a couple of times on Monday what positional groups he will be watching closely at both rookie camp and main camp. Naturally, the receiver group popped up, as that has been a targeted area all winter even leading up to last week’s signing of veteran Chris Matthews.
“The big one is the receivers, the group of second-year receivers that we’ve talked about at times,” said Walters. “It’s pretty difficult in our league for a rookie receiver to come up with a two-week training camp, learn the nuances of the game and have an immediate impact. The guys who tend to have more success are the guys who have spent some time on the practice roster and paid their dues a little bit.
“The group of guys we had here last year that ended the season, whether it was on the PR or picked up a cheque at the end of the year… that group of guys I hope they come back and the year they spent up here or half a year in some cases, pays off and they’re ready to roll and take that next step with their game.”
The other spots to monitor are at centre and right guard on the offensive line, and at cornerback, where both Chris Randle and Kevin Fogg left in free agency, effectively opening the door wide open for new faces to step up and grab starting jobs.
“We’re certainly more comfortable coming into a training camp with some experience at the interior guys (Brandon Alexander and Marcus Sayles),” said Walters. “But we really, really would like a couple of these guys to step up and show they can step up and play. And we’re confident they can with (Winston) Rose and we liked (Chris) Humes from last year and a lot of these young guys. The good thing for the young guys this year is they’re going to get a chance to go in and compete at corner, which they’ll feel a lot more comfortable at than the halfback spot, which in years past we haven’t been in the position to play a young corner – we were pretty set at that spot.”