Willie Jefferson was hoping for rematch against Chris Van Zeyl, feels it’s ‘disrespectful’ that Bombers are underdogs

Photo courtesy: CFL

Willie Jefferson feels the Winnipeg Blue Bombers aren’t getting the credit they deserve for being the reigning Grey Cup champions.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have opened as 3.5-point favourites for Thursday’s 2021 CFL season-opener despite the fact that the game is being played at IG Field in Winnipeg.

“The CFL tends to disrespect the teams early in the season. It is what it is, man,” said Jefferson via videoconference. “We’ve always been underdogs ever since the beginning of last year. Nobody expected us to make it to the playoffs or make it to the Grey Cup.”

“If they want to keep dogging us, let them keep dogging us. We’re fine with being underdogs — come up from the bottom, that’s how we do it.”

The six-foot-seven, 250-pound pass-rusher was spectacular in 2019, recording 12 sacks, six forced fumbles, and one interception en route to being named the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

Jefferson dominated Hamilton’s veteran offensive tackles in the Grey Cup, beating them for three sacks and two forced fumbles. It was the first time all season that Ryker Mathews and Chris Van Zeyl — both of whom were named East Division all-stars in 2019 — failed to provide solid protection for their starting quarterback.

Mathews has since departed Hamilton for B.C. via free agency, while Van Zeyl will miss the game due to a hand injury. Jefferson is disappointed that he won’t get the chance for a rematch with the 37-year-old blocker, who was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in 2019.

“I’m just ready for football,” said Jefferson. “I was hoping it was going to be Van Zeyl just so we could get that rematch from 2019, but whoever lines up is going to get the action tomorrow.”

Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli will be making his first start for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats since he suffered a torn ACL against the Blue Bombers in August 2019. Jefferson feels it’s important that the team rattles him early in his return to prevent him from getting comfortable in the pocket.

“We want to make him uneasy. We want to get him off his spot,” he said. “We know that he likes to drift in the backfield. He’s very agile in the pocket with his feet, so we just want to make him uncomfortable, try to get him off his spot, and just make it hard for him to get to his reads as early as he wants.”

“We’re going to try to make it hard for them. We’re going to try to make it hard for Masoli, we’re going to try to make it hard for the receivers. We’re going to make it hard for the running back. It’s going to be a long night for the offensive line.”

The gregarious defensive end missed Winnipeg’s closed practice on Tuesday (ankle) but said that he is feeling great and ready to play on Thursday. He is pleased that the 2021 CFL season is starting with a bang with a marquee Grey Cup rematch.

“We’re back. This is what we want. This is what we’ve been waiting on. We got a chance to sit out a whole season and see what it was like without football and it was boring. It sucked,” said Jefferson.

“First game of the season, you can’t tune into a better game than this game for the first game. I’m happy to be here. CFL football. I’m gonna give you guys a show.”

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.