CFL Camp Countdown: Winnipeg embraces this offseason’s dramatic turnover
Much like last season, the CFL is doing a series of season preview calls with coaches and executives from each team to discuss their upcoming season. We're planning to sit in on each one, and will break down the highlights from each here. First up, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
— Winnipeg was widely criticized for not doing much in the offseason following a league-worst 4-14 2010 campaign, but general manager Joe Mack was vindicated for his belief in his squad when they went 10-8 in 2011, claimed the top East Division playoff berth and went all the way to the Grey Cup game. This offseason has already seen substantially more turnover, though, including the retirement of legendary defensive tackle Doug Brown, the free-agency departure of star guard Brendon LaBatte and the trade of veteran defensive end Odell Willis. However, Mack said he's quite comfortable with the moves they've made this year.
"As great as it was going to the Grey Cup, we want to win Grey Cups, and we've made some decisions we think will help this year," Mack said.
— Willis in particular seems like a notable loss, as he tied for the CFL lead with 13 sacks last season. He's also the second prominent defensive end the Bombers have lost in two seasons, as 2010 CFL sack leader Phillip Hunt left for the NFL following that campaign. Head coach Paul LaPolice isn't worried about the sacks vanishing, though, and he has particularly high confidence in young players like Jason Vega and Kenny Mainor.
"We feel like we have some young players who can help us in that regard," LaPolice said. "We like the players we have. We have to put them in a position to succeed."
— LaPolice said the focus on racking up sacks isn't going anywhere.
"We feel it's crucially important in the Canadian Football League to get to the quarterback," he said. "That's a philosophy we'll continue to build on."
— Protecting one's quarterback is also obviously important, and that's where the loss of LaBatte could hurt the Bombers. However, they'll return several of their other offensive linemen from last year, including tackles Andre Douglas and Glenn January and guard Steven Morely. LaPolice said that continuity will help.
"Certainly, the consistency helps; we need to get a consistent group," he said. "We certainly were excited about getting Andre Douglas, Glenn January and Steven Morely back."
— There are some young Canadian talents in the mix on the offensive line too, including 2011 fourth-round pick Paul Swiston out of the University of Calgary. LaPolice said the Bombers are high on him.
"He certainly will be a guy we think can come in and compete this year," LaPolice said. "We think he has a bright future."
— Also on the offensive line front, the Bombers made one of the most dramatic moves of the draft with their trade up to third to select Tyson Pencer, a massive lineman who played at Washington State, but a guy who hasn't played much in the last few years thanks to injuries and other issues. Mack said he recognizes Pencer's lack of experience, but thinks he has the potential to perhaps be a ratio-busting starter at tackle one day. They'll be watching him closely at training camp.
"We're interested to see what Tyson Pencer looks like," Mack said. "Tyson Pencer will come in and compete for a roster spot. Eventually, he's someone we think could be a ratio-changing tackle. He hasn't played much in the last two years, but we love him athletically."
— The Bombers took Queen's University receiver Johnny Aprile with their second pick of the draft after the Pencer trade (in the third round, 16th overall), and there have already been suggestions they might look at converting him to safety (a position he played in high school). Mack said they were impressed with Aprile's physicality and effort, which should make him a good fit on special teams and whatever side of the ball he winds up on. His versatility is a major advantage for him in Mack's mind.
"He showed great effort blocking, being physical after interceptions," Mack said. "Any player, but particularly a Canadian player, who has the versatility to play different positions, perhaps different sides of the ball, that's an advantage."
— Mack said a crucial overall focus will be turning the ball over less on offence and forcing more takeaway opportunities on defence.
"The turnover ratio is the big thing for us," he said. "That's something we want to continue to focus on."
— Winnipeg players have gotten into several different Twitter-based controversies over the past year, from criticizing management during free agency to speaking out about wanting to be home during Grey Cup week. Mack and LaPolice were asked several questions about Twitter, but LaPolice's comments about wanting to educate players rather than lock them down stood out.
"We want to engage fans, that's one of the best parts of the CFL," LaPolice said. "We're trying to make sure we can educate our players to make better decisions. ... If you're emotional, get away from your Twitter account."
— When Winnipeg opens their camp, one positional battle to watch will be in the kicking game. Non-import punter/kicker Mike Renaud was reasonably solid last season, but not outstanding, and the team has brought in former Florida Gator and Hamilton Tiger-Cat Eric Wilbur to challenge him.
"An important one for us is the kicking situation," LaPolice said. "Eric Wilbur's someone who can come in and compete for both jobs."
— The Bombers have seen some off-field issues arise this year with delays popping up during the construction of their new stadium. Club president and CEO Garth Buchko said the stadium's on track to open early in September, which will give the Bombers more early road games, but also provide them with a nice stretch of home games once it opens.
"Hopefully we'll be opening our stadium Banjo Bowl weekend, September 9," Buchko said. "The stadium definitely is a challenge, but it's also a fabulous opportunity."