Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Saskatchewan Roughriders: eight players to watch in the preseason clash

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The CFL has already had a week of preseason action, but the season can never truly begin until the Saskatchewan Roughriders take to the field at Mosaic Stadium.

While regular-season games are all about engaging storylines and final scores, the preseason is about the players. Dozens of future CFL stars will be getting their first taste of the action this week but with so many new prospects on every roster, it can be difficult for fans to know who they should have their eyes on.

As always, 3DownNation has done the work for you. We’re publishing a list of players to watch ahead of every preseason game in 2022, giving fans — whether in-stadium or watching on TV — an easy cheat sheet to enhance their viewing experience.

The Riders make their 2022 debut at 8:30 p.m. EST against the battle-tested Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who played on Friday. Few starters are expected to be on the field for either side but if you are planning to tune in, here are eight players you need to be aware of.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Photo courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Donald Rutledge Jr., DB, Georgia Southern

The Bombers already had holes to fill in the secondary but the pressure has intensified after starting strongside linebacker Mercy Maston went down in practice last week. If he’s out for any length of time, Rutledge seems to be the favourite to fill the role. At 215 pounds, the physical safety looked like a man amongst boys when he played at Savannah State and continued to be a menace when he jumped to the FBS level. He has all the tools necessary to be Winnipeg’s next great find in the secondary.

Brendan O’Leary-Orange, REC, Nevada

Winnipeg’s fourth-round pick in the 2020 CFL Draft did very little as a rookie last season, failing to record a catch in the five contests he dressed in. However, the six-foot-three, 210-pound target reportedly showed up to camp in outstanding shape and head coach Mike O’Shea has suggested several times that his leap forward could force the team to start three Canadian receivers. That narrative should be familiar to fans in Saskatchewan, as it bears striking similarities to the story of fellow big-bodied receiver Brayden Lenius with the Riders last year.

Kyle Borsa, RB, Regina

Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine will be the new Canadian backfield tandem for the Bombers, but I’m fascinated to see what the team has in last year’s fifth-round pick, Kyle Borsa. The five-foot-eleven, 200-pound back led the Regina Rams with just 578 all-purpose yards last year after being sent back to school by Winnipeg, a step back from his U Sports production before his 2019 PED suspension. Nevertheless, Borsa clocked a 4.38 forty in the draft process and has big-time receiving upside, two elements that the Bombers’ projected running back stable currently lacks.

Tomoya Machino, OL, Kyoto

Global players don’t generate a lot of excitement from fans, but Machino has the potential to be incredibly special. After a year on the practice squad, the ultra-athletic Japanese lineman finally got his shot to play for the first time last week, suiting up at right guard alongside what was essentially Winnipeg’s starting unit. He should get plenty more action in this one and I think the sky is the limit for one of my favourite offensive line prospects ever — regardless of nationality.

Saskatchewan Roughriders

Screengrab courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

Nelson Lokombo, DB, Saskatchewan

The second overall selection in the 2021 CFL Draft, Lokombo lost his entire rookie season after tearing his Achilles in a pre-training camp workout. Tuesday will be the first time Rider Nation sees him in live-action and he’s listed as the team’s starting corner, though you should expect him to see time at multiple positions. Head coach Craig Dickenson said this week that Lokombo is too good a player not to be on the field and the former President’s Trophy winner as Canada’s top collegiate defensive performer could be making an unexpected push for a starting role.

Jake Dolegala, QB, Central Connecticut

The battle for the backup job behind Cody Fajardo is an intense one yet again and incumbent Mason Fine will be pushed hard by well-travelled former NFL pivot Jake Dolegala. At over six-foot-six and 240 pounds, Dolegala is a smooth operator in the pocket with elite arm strength. The thought entering the 2019 NFL Draft was that his developmental potential was unmatched, which is why he stuck around for three years as an undrafted free agent with four different teams — two of them twice. If the Riders can finally be the ones to polish that statuesque mound of clay, they’ll be playing with house money.

Frankie Hickson, RB, Liberty

You can expect the Riders’ open competition at running back to take up a lot of oxygen this preseason, as several intriguing candidates look to leapfrog Jamal Morrow on the depth chart. With 4,494 career all-purpose yards in college, Hickson seems to be the newcomer standing out the most. No doubt highly recommended by former Riders coach and current Liberty offensive coordinator Kent Austin, the five-foot-seven, 190-pound back is remarkably unafraid of contact for his size and will slash between the tackles.

Noah Johnson, OL, Kansas State

Looking at the Riders’ recent offseason moves, the team is clearly preparing contingencies for if centre Dan Clark — who turns 34 tomorrow — misses any time in 2022. Johnson may be the most interesting option, given that CFL teams rarely sign true American centre prospects. The two-time All-Big 12 selection has elite lateral agility for the position and will get the chance to start in the preseason opener. It hints at Saskatchewan’s willingness to flip the ratio in the trenches if they need to this season.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and youth football coach. He covers the CFL, the CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.