Five training camp battles to watch in Winnipeg (and other tidbits)

With rookie camp set to open on Wednesday and training camp getting underway on Sunday, it’s time to take a peek at some key position battles that will take centre stage in Bomberland over the next few weeks.

Camp battles

1) Middle linebacker

Following the departure of Khalil Bass in free agency, middle linebacker is the Bombers’ only position that is wide open heading into 2017. Incumbents Nick Temple and Kyle Knox remain on the roster, though neither player has ever started a CFL game.

Kyrie Wilson had a cup of coffee in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, while George Stone and Jovan Santos-Knox are first-time pros. Mike O’Shea, who will be inducted to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame this upcoming season as a player, will have his pick of the litter to serve as his club’s new ‘Mike’.

2) Nose tackle

Keith Shologan was released in January after a middling season along the interior of the club’s defensive line. The Bombers went on to use the first overall pick in the 2017 CFL draft on Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie, whose size (6’1, 302 lbs) and athleticism make him a serious candidate to enter the starting line-up right away.

Underrated rotational man Jake Thomas will get a long look to start as nose tackle as well, though whoever starts may be irrelevant — Ekakitie and Thomas will both see lots of the field regardless of who takes the game’s first snap.

The club’s remaining national defensive tackles — 2016 sixth rounder Rupert Butcher (Western) and 2017 sixth rounder Ian Marouf (Guelph) — will likely duke it out for a spot on the practice roster.

3) Field cornerback/halfback

Incumbent starters Terrence Frederick (field cornerback) and Bruce Johnson (field halfback) are still on the roster, but the field-side positions of the Bombers’ secondary are both up for grabs. Winnipeg is bringing nine new American defensive backs to rookie camp, a clear indication that they aren’t afraid to make changes.

Chris Randle (boundary cornerback), T.J. Heath (boundary halfback), and Taylor Loffler (safety) are among the best in the league at their respective positions, so nailing down the field-side of the secondary is key for a Bomber club that gave up a league-worst 323 passing yards per game in 2016.

4) Field wideout

Last year’s starting field wideout, Rory Kohlert, found himself benched for the West Semi-Final in B.C. and wasn’t retained in free agency. Julian Feoli-Gudino appears to have the inside track to the starting gig, though he’ll face competition from Addison Richards, Matt Coates, and Tylor Henry.

Richards, the eleventh overall pick of the 2015 draft, has all the physical tools to contribute (6’4, 221 pounds with 4.60 speed) but has registered just one catch in seventeen career games. Coates, signed as a free agent from Hamilton, is a former Canadian Junior Football League player with nine career CFL receptions. Henry, meanwhile, was the Bombers’ eighth round selection out of Alberta.

Two accomplished Canadian receivers currently find themselves out of work in Chris Getzlaf and Spencer Watt. With money to spend following the retirements of Ryan Smith and Garrett Waggoner, it’s not impossible to imagine the Bombers adding a national receiver at some point in the near future.

5) Back-up quarterback

Matt Nichols is firmly entrenched as the Bombers’ starter, but the addition of Dan LeFevour in free agency clouded the club’s QB depth chart. Dominique Davis is entering his third year with the Bombers and, while he didn’t take a snap last season, he showed enough in practice to earn a contract extension in January.

Winnipeg recently added quarterbacks Austin Apodaca and Malcolm Bell, both CFL rookies, to raise the number of arms in camp to five. Apodaca can throw a football 61 MPH, while Bell is a mobile pivot who’s a little smaller than his 6’1, 190-pound listing on the club’s roster.

Expect LeFevour and Davis to duel for the back-up role with one of Apodaca or Bell ending up on the practice roster barring injury.

Camp with class

The Bombers recently announced the signing of second round draft pick Qadr Spooner, an offensive lineman out of McGill. This means the Bombers have officially signed their entire 2017 draft class, minus Green Bay’s Geoff Gray (selected eight overall) and Montreal punter Felix Menard-Briere (34th overall).

Kyle Walters said in his Tuesday media availability that the hold-up with Menard-Briere’s contract is strictly logistical and that he’s expected to be in camp. Gray, meanwhile, will be with the Packers for the foreseeable future.

New phone, who dis?

A few familiar faces in Bomberland changed digits this past winter. Receiver Darvin Adams will wear number 1 instead of number 4, while running back Timothy Flanders will wear 20 instead of 32. On defence, T.J. Heath swapped out his old 13 for 23, the number vacated by Kevin Fogg in favor of 3, his college number from Liberty.

The missing number

The Bombers have only three numbers that they consider officially retired — 11, 28, and 75. Number 11 was worn by the great Ken Ploen, while 28 and 75 were retired in honour of Jeff Nicklin and Tommy Lumsden, respectively. Nicklin, a defensive lineman with the Bombers from 1935-1940, was tragically killed during combat in World War II, while Lumsden died in 1955 during a routine surgery at just twenty-five years of age.

Despite having just three retired numbers, there are a few other digits the Bombers haven’t assigned for many years, if ever — Chris Walby’s 63, Milt Stegall’s 85, and Doug Brown’s 97. No players in camp have been assigned those numbers this year, which makes me wonder why the club won’t make things official by retiring them for good.

I’ve written about this topic before, a piece you can find here.

Open camp

As always, training camp in Winnipeg is open to the public. Things will get underway on Sunday morning at 9:00 AM and wrap up just before noon. The forecast is calling for fifteen degrees and partly cloudy skies, so there’s no reason not to make the trek to Investors Group Field if you’re in the area.

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