BOMBERS TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW: Potential work stoppage puts storylines like positional battles and new hash marks on back burner – Toronto Sun

Canadian defensive back Patrice Rene (6)    takes part in Blue Bombers rookie camp on Friday, May 13, 2022.
Canadian defensive back Patrice Rene (6) takes part in Blue Bombers rookie camp on Friday, May 13, 2022. Photo by Chris Procaylo /Winnipeg Sun

Heading into every CFL training camp, there are always intriguing storylines to watch out for.

Advertisement 2

As of late Saturday, it appeared there might be only one that matters.

The Canadian Football League Players Association was preparing to strike after it rejected the latest proposal from the CFL and talks were called off. The collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners was due to expire at 11 p.m., CT.

It was unknown at press time whether players would be at training camps on Sunday, including in Winnipeg, where the two-time defending Grey Cup champions are supposed to open at the University of Manitoba at 9 a.m.

So, all we can do is preview what training camp should eventually look like for the Bombers. Most CFL observers believe any labour action would be short-lived, though the negotiations have been contentious and the players are clearly taking a firmer stand than they have in the past.

Advertisement 3

Whether it’s Sunday morning or at a later date, there will no doubt be many things to watch in training camp.

Things like battles for jobs at certain positions, performances of rookies looking to make names for themselves, veterans trying to hold onto jobs, and everyone trying to stay healthy while also doing everything they can to impress the coaching staff.

This year, a big focus of Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp will be adapting to a rule change that affects every position on the field.

Among several changes the CFL made this off-season was the decision to move the hash marks closer to the centre of the field and to each other. They are now just nine yards apart instead of 17.

What this has done is create more room on both sides of the field in order to give offences more opportunities to make plays and score points.

Advertisement 4

It should tempt quarterbacks to make more throws to the field side (the wider side based on which hash marks the offence starts from) and opens up more room on the boundary side (the shorter side), which is where quarterbacks traditionally attempt a higher percentage of plays.

This will be an adjustment for quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs, in particular, but also the offensive and defensive lines, linebackers, running backs and even kickers.

“I think it allows the offence to get a little bit more creative, use a little bit more space, use a little bit more turf,” Canadian defensive back Patrice Rene said on Friday at Bombers rookie camp.

“At the end of the day though, there will be longer throws for the quarterbacks, so I kind of like that. I see that as an opportunity for me, if I read my reads right, if I read the stem right, read the quarterback right, I will be able to make a play.

Advertisement 5

“It kind of goes both ways. The offence can get a little bit more creative but it’s a longer throw, longer timing for the receiver to get into his route, and to have that connection.”

Over on the offensive side of the ball, players are licking their chops at the idea of increasing offence.

Offensive yards and points were way down last year — perhaps a product of players and coaches being off for an entire year when the 2020 season was cancelled due to COVID-19 — and it was clearly enough of a concern for the CFL to make rule changes designed to restore some of the fireworks the league is famous for.

The idea has to be pleasing for players like Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros, receivers Greg Ellingson, Rasheed Bailey and Nic Demski, and offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce.

Advertisement 6

Brendan O’Leary-Orange, a 2020 draft pick who got into three games with the Bombers last year and participated in rookie camp, said the hash marks rule is already a big focus.

“I really enjoyed rookie camp,” O’Leary-Orange said. “I thought it was an experience to get out here, especially with the change in the hashes. It’s a little bit of a change of split so it was nice to get out there and get my feet in the water.

“I’m definitely excited about it. It’s an opportunity to see more concepts now to the boundary as well as to the field, from every team in the league. I just think it may make the game a little more explosive, a little bit more open. Guys might not just throw the ball to one side. They’re gonna attack both sides of the field. It will be interesting.”

Advertisement 7

Once the labour dispute is resolved, the Bombers will assemble a group of players that looks very much like the one that captured Grey Cup titles in 2019 and 2021, with a few notable exceptions.

Gone are stars like running back Andrew Harris (a sure-fire Hall of Famer, now with Toronto), CFL-leading receiver Kenny Lawler (Edmonton), long-time starting wide receiver Darvin Adams (Ottawa), punishing defensive tackle Steven Richardson (B.C.), and all-star defensive back DeAundre Alford (NFL, Atlanta).

But there are plenty of veterans returning, including Collaros, all-star offensive linemen Stanley Bryant, Jermarcus Hardrick and Pat Neufeld, and defenders Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat, Adam Bighill, Kyrie Wilson, Brandon Alexander and Winston Rose on defence.

Advertisement 8

It will be months before we know if this group has what it takes to win a third straight championship, but the training camp roster certainly looks strong.

What will head coach Mike O’Shea be looking for?

Players who go out and take it.

“They do have to show us they can make plays,” O’Shea said.

“You want to see something jump out at you. You want to notice them. I don’t know that guys should sit back and wait for things to come to them. They should go and try and take a play and make their mark in that way.”

The last thing O’Shea wants to see is complacency from a team that has won consecutive championships. He doesn’t live in the past and as far as he’s concerned the Bombers are looking to win one championship in a row, starting this year.

Advertisement 9

“There’s still a part that says you’ve got to tear a bunch of it back down again and rebuild it again so everybody learns again from that foundation up,” O’Shea said. “I don’t know that feeling comfortable is going to serve us at all. That’s the worst thing we could do, is feel comfortable.”

There will be some competition for jobs to fill the vacated positions — as well as at safety, where Alexander is recovering from a knee injury — though there are heirs apparent in several of the roles.

Here’s a look at some of the more intriguing battles:


Brady Oliveira, a 24-year-old from Winnipeg who is heading into his third season, is expected to take over for Harris, with some help from versatile running back Johnny Augustine. Canadian Kyle Borsa, from the University of Regina, will look to find a role as well, while Americans Vance Barnes, Greg McCrae and Shane Simpson will likely be competing for a practice roster spot.

Advertisement 10


Ellingson was signed as a free agent to replace Lawler. He’s a consistent producer in the CFL and has five 1,000-plus yard receiving seasons, with Hamilton, Ottawa and Edmonton. Bailey is expected to move into the role formerly held by Adams, while veteran free-agent signing Jalen Saunders may have the inside track on one of the slot positions. He’ll get competition from the likes of Blake Jackson, Lucky Jackson and Carlton Agudosi.


Casey Sayles performed well at defensive tackle when Richardson was out last season and played in all 14 games, recording five sacks. He likely has the inside track on starting in 2022, though he’ll have to battle Ricky Walker, Kenneth Randall, and Jo Jo Wicker for a starting international spot.

Advertisement 11


Just like last year, there will be an intense battle at defensive back. For the second straight year, the Bombers are starting training camp with 27 defensive backs.

A year ago, Alford and Deatrick Nichols (who is back), came out of that mix to win jobs.

This year, there’s likely only one or maybe one-and-a-half jobs available.

The only starter that is gone from the secondary is Alford. Cornerback Rose, halfback Nichols, veteran halfback Nick Taylor and dime back Mercy Maston should be starters this year.

That leaves one corner position and, potentially, a starting gig at safety until Alexander returns.

Canadian Nick Hallett could have the inside track to fill in for Alexander, while players like Tyrell Ford (2022 second-round pick), Rene (2021 third-rounder), Demerio Houston and Tyqwan Glass could be in the mix to start at corner.

Advertisement 12

Could the Bombers really go with a Canadian like Ford or Rene there?

Both O’Shea and general manager Kyle Walters suggested they could, as both players are tremendous athletes, regardless of their passports.


With all-star left guard Drew Desjarlais leaving for the NFL’s New England Patriots, a starting spot has come open on the Bombers’ offensive line.

Who might fill that role is still very much up in the air.

Returning backups Geoff Gray and Chris Kolankowski could get shots, or the Bombers could go with an American and start a second Canadian on defence.

Another option could be 2021 first-round draft pick Liam Dobson, who is currently at an NFL mini-camp, but could conceivably become available soon.

Advertisement 13


Right now it looks like the place-kicking job is Ali Mourtada’s to lose, although second-year player Marc Liegghio could get another shot if he performs well in training camp. Liegghio may have his hands full holding onto his punting job, as the Bombers brought in Australian Tom Hackett, taken in the global draft this year, to compete for the role.


Nobody is going to take the starting job away from 2021 CFL most outstanding player and two-time Grey Cup champ Zach Collaros. But it’s pretty important that he has a solid backup and the Bombers believe they acquired that in free agent Dakota Prukop, who has appeared in 49 games (limited action) over four seasons. He’ll get a challenge from Dru Brown, who was the Bombers’ third quarterback last season. Brown has shown a strong arm in practice and got into two games last season. He’ll have to continue that to hold off a challenge from Jake Floreia, who is straight out of John Carroll University in Ohio, and will compete in training camp just five days after signing with the Bombers.

Collaros has been healthy ever since he joined the Bombers late in the 2019 season, but he has a long injury history and plays a risky position.

The Bombers survived 2021 despite being thin at backup quarterback but someday that luck could run out.

opening envelope

Your Midday Sun

From our newsroom to your inbox at noon, the latest headlines, stories, opinion and photos from the Toronto Sun.

By clicking on the sign up button you consent to receive the above newsletter from Postmedia Network Inc. You may unsubscribe any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link at the bottom of our emails. Postmedia Network Inc. | 365 Bloor Street East, Toronto, Ontario, M4W 3L4 | 416-383-2300