Canadian offensive lineman Tui Eli is back with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and his trust in the team’s head coach is the primary reason why.
“He signed for three years and that was a huge, huge thing for me and my wife,” Eli told 3DownNation at training camp on Sunday. “Once we knew that Coach O’Shea was going to be here, we trust him and we feel safe with him. He’s a good coach, he’s fair.”
Eli signed a three-year deal with Winnipeg in January, which came one month after O’Shea signed a three-year extension to remain with the club through 2025. Eli played with the team in 2019 and 2021, though he was suspended ahead of the Grey Cup in Hamilton due to being unvaccinated against COVID-19.
“My wife and I prayed and we still felt for us, we didn’t have peace with getting the vaccine at the time, so we didn’t,” he said.
The 27-year-old didn’t receive a game cheque for the Grey Cup in 2021 but still got a championship ring, which O’Shea said was done because Eli was an important part of the organization that season.
“He’s such a good human being,” said O’Shea. “If you made the choice not to support him, you would be going against humanity. I don’t know how to say it. If you get to know him a little bit, you know how good of a person he is and he deserves that support.”
With travel restrictions still in place, Eli went unsigned after becoming a free agent in February 2022. This marked the second time that his playing career was put on hold as he’d previously moved on from the game in 2018 to rehabilitate a torn ACL and travel to Western Samoa to receive the title of chief from his father.
While unable to play, Eli accepted a position coaching the offensive line at Ronan High School in Montana in 2022. Though travel restrictions were lifted partway through the year, Eli wasn’t willing to leave Ronan until the season was complete. He watched a number of Winnipeg’s games from afar but didn’t remain in close contact with his former teammates for fear of turning their focus away from the field.
“I didn’t really reach out to the boys too much, I didn’t want to distract them,” he said. “I just wanted them to focus on the game and stuff, but I missed them a lot. I missed all the guys. I missed going out there with the team and just that feeling.”
Eli and his wife have a permanent home in Winnipeg where she is a full-time student. He arrived to training camp in shape and currently weighs 305 pounds, which is down 20 pounds from his rookie season and 35 pounds from his final year of college.
Chris Kolankowski took reps at centre with the first-team offence on Sunday, though Eli is expected to compete with him for the starting job. Though he’s willing and capable to play elsewhere along the offensive line, centre is the position at which Eli became one of the best in all of college football prior to his injury in 2018.
Father and son
The Blue Bombers released Canadian receiver Michael O’Shea, the son of head coach Mike O’Shea, following rookie camp. The former CJFL star went unselected in the 2023 CFL Draft but signed with the team last week as an undrafted free agent.
“It’s pro football. It happens. I got cut, too,” said O’Shea, who indicated it was a tough conversation to have.
Just for kicks
Winnipeg released American kicker Marc Orozco and Canadian punter Chris MacLean following rookie camp but signed Australian punter Jamieson Sheahan, who was the club’s first-round pick in the 2023 CFL Global Draft. The team now has six legs in training camp, including incumbent specialist Marc Liegghio and veteran placekicker Sergio Castillo.
When asked how Liegghio is handling the level of competition in training camp, O’Shea pointed to the 26-year-old’s growing maturity.
“He’s in his third year. He’s grown quite a bit, he’s gotten better, he’s practiced,” he said. “He’s done all the things that pros do, so I imagine that that’s another thing that he’s able to check off the list is competing.”
Jake Thomas was not present for practice on Sunday but will arrive for training camp soon from his off-season home in the Maritimes. Canadian defensive tackle Cameron Lawson took reps with the first-team defence and is hoping to be the next man up when the 10-year veteran eventually retires.
“That’s obviously the goal,” said Lawson. “Jake’s always helping me out and teaching me everything he knows in his long and experienced career. I always try and absorb what he’s saying, how he plays, and just watching him. Obviously, I want to take over where he’s at whenever he’s ready to move on.”
Lawson was a second-round pick of the Montreal Alouettes in the 2020 CFL Draft but was traded to Winnipeg ahead of the 2022 season. He dressed for all 18 regular season games last year in a depth role and made 12 tackles and one sack.
“We liked him last year,” said O’Shea. “We liked him enough to try and get him here. He’s strong, he’s tough, he’s got a lot of push.”
Earn your stripes
Winnipeg has made a subtle change to their helmets this season as they have permanently moved to the triple-stripe look introduced as part of their alternative uniforms in 2022. The club previously had a single blue stripe on their helmets but will now have three: a white centre stripe flanked by blue stripes on either side.
Veteran linebacker Kyrie Wilson and Global defensive end Thiadric Hansen have been placed on the six-game injured list, though O’Shea indicated that both will play this year.
Canadian defensive back Noah Hallett was released because wasn’t going to pass his physical after re-injuring his knee during the 2022 season. O’Shea indicated that the team could “absolutely” sign him back once he returns to full health. His older brother, Nick, remains with the team.
Adam Bighill didn’t participate in most of practice and was replaced by Shayne Gauthier, while Malik Clements was in for Kyrie Wilson at weak-side linebacker.