SPORTS

Bombers have new crop of Canadian talent as they prepare for 2012 CFL season

05/08/2012 05:24 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - A crop of promising young Canadians is sprouting as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers rebuild after last season's Grey Cup loss and departures both expected and unexpected.

Competing for slots on the offensive line are this year's first-round draft pick Tyson Pencer from Delta, B.C., (3rd overall) and one of last year's picks, Paul Swiston of Calgary.

"He hasn't played a lot of football in the last two years but we'll see where he is," coach Paul LaPolice said Tuesday of the six-foot-eight, 330-pound Pencer.

"We do love him athletically and we think he has the ability to be a tackle in this league down the road."

Swiston is another prospect who brings serious size to the offensive line at six-foot-nine and around 340 pounds.

"We were very pleased to draft him last year. We were very excited about him. We kept him around all year and we just love him, his character, his work ethic," LaPolice said Tuesday on a CFL pre-season conference call.

"He decided to live in Winnipeg all off-season and he looks great."

Wide-receivers Cory Watson of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., and Montreal's Kito Poblah are likely starters already, with Regina's Jade Etienne and Cassidy Doneff of Cochrane, Alta., waiting their turns.

Last year's Bomber special teams captain Pierre-Luc Labbe of Quebec City, and last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Henoc Muamba of Mississauga, Ont., are looking for spots as starting linebackers.

There are big Canadian shoes to fill.

All-star offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte left as a free agent for his home province to join the Saskatchewan Roughriders, while offensive lineman Obby Khan and veteran nose tackle Doug Brown retired.

"Trying to find a way to maintain the high level of play of our defence while losing a player of Doug's calibre is probably one of our biggest challenges," said general manager Joe Mack.

It promises to be a challenging season for the Bombers on and off the field.

They'll be playing in their crumbling old stadium once more and also looking for ways to muzzle a few loose cannons and stop what turned into a barrage of disparaging tweets last season, although muzzle isn't a word they would use.

"We want to engage our fans, that's one of the best parts of the Canadian Football League," said Lapolice when asked about end-of-season exchanges over how free agency was being handled.

"But we have to have an understanding ... Don't put anything out if you're not comfortable saying it at half time of the Grey Cup."

The Bombers plan on a special social media session to help educate players about the dos and don'ts of the social media universe.

As for the shiny new stadium they expected would be ready, that now looks like it won't be finished until sometime in September, if then, but LaPolice says there's nothing they can do.

"Our players have to worry about things that are in their control and those things aren't in their control ... But I can tell you we'll have some of the nicest facilities in the Canadian Football League when it's all said and done."

There are no changes at quarterback with Buck Pierce returning for his third season, but No. 2 on the chart remains up in the air, with Alex Brink and Joey Elliott both impressing LaPolice.

"Both Guys have showed promise."

As for quarterback protection, timing is a big part of the issue, he suggested after reviewing films of what went on last season.

Pierce completed 261-of-411 passes but was also intercepted a league high 18 times.

"We watched every sack that was given up ... every interception, every big play," said LaPolice

"We wanted to make sure we could move the launch point a little bit more ... There were times when we held the ball too long. Sooner or later the protection will break down so we talked to our quarterbacks a little about that during mini-camp."

As for the protection Pierce receives, there's room for some new blood but also returning veterans to bring the consistency the coach says he wants to see.

"Certainly there'll be some changes up front with some younger guys fitting in, but we certainly were excited about getting Andre Douglas, Glenn January and Steven Morely back and it gives some experience there."

Mack's biggest concern with the offence is the turnover ratio.

"That's something we really want to concentrate on," he said.

"That and cutting down on penalties."

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