Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters: Anthony Bennett brings same positive energy as Willie Jefferson

Photos: Michael Scraper/3DownNation & David Mahussier/3DownNation. Photo edit: 3DownNation.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers selected defensive lineman Anthony Bennett with the eighth overall pick in the 2023 CFL Draft and general manager Kyle Walters wasted no time comparing him to one of the team’s most popular players.

“He reminds me of Willie (Jefferson), the energy that he brings, positive, excitable. He’s just a great young man. It was awesome talking to him in the interview process. He’s a great young man and a high-energy guy in the way that he plays and his personality,” said Walters. “He’s going to bring energy. Him and Willie, those are two big personalities.”

Jefferson is one of the CFL’s best defensive players, though he’s especially beloved by fans in Winnipeg due to the nature of his personality. He brings an infectious energy to the team on the field and has become a prominent figure in club marketing and on social media, particularly since he and his family moved to the city full-time following the 2021 season.

Bennett brings a similar energy, which was on full display during his one-on-one interview with 3DownNation at the CFL Combine. He radiates positivity, cracks jokes, and speaks with a level of confidence that’s rare for players coming through the draft process. It seems safe to presume that he’s the type of player to whom others will gravitate at the professional level.

Though Bennett has yet to connect with Jefferson since being drafted on Tuesday, he agrees that the two share a number of personality traits.

“That is 1,000 percent accurate,” said Bennett. “I watched his game and I aspire to be that. It’s so funny because in my head I was like, ‘Oh man, if me and him are here, we’re gonna cause havoc on some quarterbacks.’ I’m excited, I’m fired up. And [Jackson Jeffcoat], too? It’s gonna be an exciting time. I can’t wait to meet those boys.”

It almost seems like fate that Bennett and Jeffcoat are now members of the same defensive line. Bennett’s father, Charles, had a brief stint with the Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1980s where he was a teammate of Jim Jeffcoat, Jackson’s father.

“Honestly, I did not know that correlation,” said Bennett. “I’m definitely going to mention that to [Jeffcoat]. He’s gonna get a laugh and we’re gonna get a nice kick out of that conversation.”

Despite their similarities off the field, Bennett and Jefferson play the game in entirely different ways. Bennett is six-foot-one and 229 pounds, which means he will need to rely on speed and quickness to rush the passer at the professional level.

Walters called Bennett a “polished pass-rusher” who can beat opposing blockers with “energy” and “aggression.” Though it’s hard to imagine him beating out Jefferson or Jackson Jeffcoat for a starting job, he should still see plenty of reps as he plays on the team’s oft-rotating defensive front.

Bennett was a prolific pass-rusher at the University of Regina, recording 11 sacks over 14 career games. He spent the first five years of his collegiate career at the Florida Atlantic University but didn’t see a lot of action, recording four total tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble over 10 games.

Walters didn’t seem concerned about Bennett being one of the oldest players available in this year’s draft. The native of Weston, Fla., who was partially raised by his mother in Regina, will turn 27 in October. He’s already older than a number of the team’s key contributors, including running back Brady Oliveira, backup quarterback Dru Brown, and defensive back Jamal Parker.

“We’ve got a good team right now and we’re worried about winning right now,” he said. “On the field, [Bennett]’s got an extensive football background, a little bit more than most U Sports guys, so certainly that can be an advantage.”

The club will need to undergo a youth movement at some point in the near future but for now the Blue Bombers are a veteran-laden team looking to take advantage of their championship window. Bennett fits that bill.

Best available

When it comes to the draft, teams often talk about taking the best player available regardless of position. It was refreshing to hear Walters admit the opposite was true for Winnipeg this year as they specifically targeted areas they identified as needs.

“The plan going in was we wanted some defensive line help, we wanted a free safety, and a receiver,” he said. “We thought the best plan of attack to get them was in that order based on the way we thought the draft and the depth might fall.”

Sure enough, the club selected Bennett in the first round followed by Bishop’s defensive back Jake Kelly in the second round and Concordia receiver Jeremy Murphy in the third round. Bing, bang, boom.

Photo courtesy: Bishop’s. Photo edit: 3DownNation.

Gaiter up

Kelly is the first Bishop’s player to be drafted since 2018 when Mathieu Breton was taken in the fifth round by the Riders. The Gaiters had a horrendous stretch from 2014 to 2018 during which they posted a 4-36 record.

Things have slowly started turning around for the Gaiters since moving to the AUS conference and it shows with Kelly being taken relatively early in this year’s draft. Here’s hoping the program can continue with the positive momentum they’ve created in recent years.

Ram on through

Winnipeg drafted Bennett and defensive tackle Tanner Schmekel out of the University of Regina on Tuesday before announcing that they’d signed Robbie Lowes, a former Ram who missed all of last season due to injury. Despite the number of Regina players on Winnipeg’s roster, Walters indicated there’s nothing in particular about that program that leads him to target their prospects.

“As we’re watching the film or you’re doing your draft, you’re like, ‘Boy, I can see why Regina had a pretty good defence this year with with the number of guys on that team that are CFL-quality players,” said Walters.

“They play hard, they play tough. I don’t know that it’s that specific program. It might be a Can West thing. When we sit and evaluate, we like guys that play hard, play with energy, play tough, play physical and I think that is a Can West brand of football.”

Photo courtesy: Regina Rams

Fatboi 2.0

Sources indicated ahead of the draft that a good CFL comparable for Schmekel is Jake Thomas, who has spent more than a decade playing along Winnipeg’s defensive line. Though Walters agreed Schmekel is similar to Thomas when he was coming out of U Sports back in 2012, he indicated Schmekel has to work on his pass-rushing ability to reach the level at which Thomas plays as a veteran.

“The development of pass rush game, that’s a big one for young interior guys that at the U Sports level generally just get off the ball and win with power and have some success. That’s not going to work up here, you’re not just going to run over guards like they both did down there,” said Walters.

Walters credited Jefferson and Jeffcoat for helping some of the team’s young defensive linemen improve their ability to rush the passer. He is hopeful that Schmekel and fifth-round pick Collin Kornelson out of the University of Manitoba will develop that element of their skillset at the professional level.

No hogs allowed

The Blue Bombers didn’t draft an offensive lineman for the second consecutive year, which is somewhat surprising given how prominent the position is in the draft.

“We were OK with our group coming back,” said Walters. “We felt that if you’re not going to spend a first or second-round (pick) in this draft on an O-lineman, there’s gonna be a bit of a developmental phase and you saw that last night. I think a lot of the O-linemen are developmental-type guys.”

Winnipeg is converting Cole Adamson, a fourth-round pick in last year’s draft, from the defensive line to offensive line in training camp. Walters indicated that they’ll move him back to defensive tackle if the change doesn’t work but they’re prepared to give him a “good long look” as a blocker.

“He looks like an O-lineman,” said Walters. “He’s a very cerebral guy, he’s an engineer, he reminds me of (veteran guard) Geoff Gray in that regard. I think on the D-line, he’s less twitchy and explosive. His body looks like an O-lineman and his mentality looks like an O-lineman.”

It’s worth noting that this year’s offensive line group was relatively weak with only three being selected in the first 30 picks. Scouts are already talking about how next year’s group of blockers will be very strong, so there should be an opportunity for Winnipeg to add a bluechip blocker in the draft in 2024.

Global ties

Walters seemed surprised by how many questions he received from the media regarding the global draft, which took place on Tuesday morning. The CFL’s global program has yet to find a strong foothold, though it remains a pet project of league commissioner Randy Ambrosie.

“Randy’ll be pumped about this!” said Walters, drawing a laugh from the media.

No-ah timeline

Walters touched briefly on Canadian defensive back Noah Hallett briefly while speaking to the media. The former third-round pick suffered another serious knee injury this past season and it doesn’t appear as though he’ll be ready for training camp. Though he could play in 2023, there is no official timeline for his return.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.