Landry: Bombers’ Holm sharpened by teammate Schoen
There’s a pretty good reason why Evan Holm became a CFL All-Star this season.
Well, really, there’s a number of reasons that the 25-year-old native of Minnesota has emerged in his second year with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and why he can be counted on to make some big, gaudy defensive plays when the Bombers meet the Montreal Alouettes in the 110th Grey Cup on Sunday.
There’s his speed, for one. His smarts, for another. But the pretty good reason near or at the top of the list?
Sharpening his skills against one of his teammates in practice every day.
“I love Dalton Schoen,” said Holm, gratitude dripping from every word.
In a breakout season in 2023, Holm has dazzled from the get-go, spring boarding a great training camp into a stellar regular season. He’s now in a place where he is one of the best pass defenders in the entire CFL: a shutdown, break-up, knock-down speed demon on whom the Bombers can rely in their quest to lift Lord Grey’s mug on Sunday.
“He’s someone we’ve highlighted in our room,” said Montreal receiver Tyson Philpot, asked about having to face that very, very tough Bombers’ pass defence. “We know he’s a great cover guy who’s an All-Star. Plays with lots of depth, so he likes to rally on things. It’s just gonna be a great challenge but it’s something I pride myself in, good battles. So I can’t wait.”
Holm has had lots of good battles in 2023 and many of them have not actually been against Schoen. But the one-on-ones he’s waged against his teammate in practice have been integral in lifting Holm ever higher this season.
“He has kind of this nonchalantness to his routes and then he can be suddenly out of nowhere,” said Holm of his All-Star receiver of a teammate. “Which is really confusing at times.
“Plus he can change his routes on the fly. He is on that page with Zach (quarterback Zach Collaros) where he can kind of break off his routes and do something else. Not a lot of receivers do that. They just kind of stick to their routes.”
So if at times it looks like things are coming easily to Holm on a football field, some of that is the product of testing himself against a receiver who often leaves us all asking, ‘How could he possibly get that wide open?’
Taking on Schoen has helped Holm steepen his learning curve, one that he had been climbing well after an off-season of reflection and strategizing.
In his first season with the Bombers, in 2022, Holm found getting used to the pre-snap motion known as a “waggle” was giving him some trouble. That’s often the case with American defensive backs who come north to meet the Canadian game face-to-face for the first time.
Although he slowly got used to that waggle, Holm has found he’s had to get used to a whole ‘nother level of understanding due to facing Schoen and his special abilities when it comes to disguising his routes and his intentions.
“You can get used to the waggle,” said Holm, indicating that some receivers can be a little predictable even with their pre-snap head start.
“But there’s guys like Dalton Schoen who will use it to his advantage. It’s not the same every time. He’ll hit the same routes but he’ll do it different ways.
“He’s a lot harder to play against ‘cause you’re not really sure…he makes you second guess yourself.”
Holm has not had Schoen’s particular set of skills to test himself against for the last few weeks, what with the man who finished third in the CFL with 1,222 receiving yards being on the injured list after hurting his ankle during a Week 18 game against BC. The Blue Bombers had to do without Schoen in the Western Final and it is uncertain as to whether he’ll be able to suit up this Sunday. On Wednesday’s injury report, Schoen was listed as not participating in practice.
Holm led the Blue Bombers in defensive plays in 2023, with 85, including two interceptions as well as 12 knockdowns. That knockdown total tied him with teammate Deatrick Nichols for second in the CFL, each of them one back of the leader and another teammate, Willie Jefferson.
Last week, in the Western Final, Holm tallied two tackles and added an interception.
It has been apparent to all who watch the CFL that he is comfortable and confident in his play, flying around with great abandon on every down.
“I know I’m fast,” said Holm. “That helps a lot. I know it’s going to take a long time for the ball to get there, so I can sit on certain things. A corner route to the field (wide side) is going to take forever to get there, so I can wait a little bit longer than some people.”
As good as his second season with Winnipeg has been, Holm is looking for improvement in something that is vitally important to a defensive back and that is recognition. He’d like to be even more adept at anticipating what an opposing offence is up to before the ball is snapped.
“I want to get to the point where I’m calling out everything,” said Holm. “Occasionally I can do that. I’m not quite there yet.”
As that part of his game continues to evolve, Holm can rely on the more experienced players around him on that Bombers’ defence, like sixth-year vet Brandon Alexander, the team’s free safety.
For his part, Alexander is very impressed by Holm.
“Evan Holm is a talented, very smart football player,” said Alexander. “He’s a joy to be around.
“He’s extremely fast,” added Alexander, repeating himself with some emphasis. “He’s EXTREMELY fast. I’ve never seen nothin’ like it. For real. That’s a special guy right there.”
Sizing up some of the Montreal receivers that he’ll be facing in Sunday’s Grey Cup, Holm was succinct.
“Really good player,” he said of Austin Mack. Philpot is good in space.”
Then he came to another player that might be reminding him — just a little — of Schoen and that is Tyler Snead, who caught a touchdown pass in Montreal’s win against Toronto in the Eastern Final.
“He’s really sudden,” said Holm of Snead. “Quick. I think he’s really good.”
Evan Holm has seen that sort of thing in practice. He will be well prepared.