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Yes Bomber fans, Swaggerville will return despite loss of Odell Willis

05/22/2012 04:54 EDT | Updated 07/22/2012 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - Yes Bomber fans, Swaggerville will return.

The nickname, coined around 2009, may smack a little of "un-Canadian" pride. But it certainly hasn't been unjustified for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who arguably had the best defence in the CFL last season.

The top defensive player in the league in 2011 says it only makes sense to bring it back, even though the self-styled mayor of Swaggerville got the boot as Bomber brass tired of what Odell Willis had to say about the team.

"Yeah, I mean for sure, why would it stop?" asks Jovon Johnson, whose league-leading eight interceptions helped him snag defensive-player honours — a first for a defensive back.

Johnson held the title of mayor of Swaggerville until Willis usurped it last season, although the likable 28-year-old from Erie, Pa., didn't raise much of a stink. Willis let him be CEO.

"When you can get the fans behind you, and we can go out and perform and have them pushing this thing, I definitely think it's something we can grow with and it's definitely been a positive in the Winnipeg community," he says.

On the field, Willis was a fan favourite, who tied for the CFL lead in sacks with 13 and was a league all-star. But it was his off-field antics, in particular a series of disparaging tweets, that got him in trouble and ultimately cost him his job.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders were happy to take him in a trade for draft picks. However, just a few weeks after the deal, Willis was arrested and charged with impaired driving in Georgia.

But his wasn't the only off-season departure on defence. Veteran nose tackle Doug Brown finally retired after more than a decade as a star and motivational anchor for the Bombers.

The team also cast Joe Lobendahn aside after four seasons because of repeated injuries and the need to start a Canadian like Henoc Muamba at middle linebacker. Although he's 29, Lobendahn wasn't out of work long and signed with Calgary.

Winnipeg-born defensive lineman Don Oramasionwu — once touted by the Bombers as the heir apparent to Brown — signed with Edmonton as a free agent after three seasons with Winnipeg.

Johnson, who is signed for another year plus an option year, doesn't dispute that the loss of key players — particularly Willis — won't go unnoticed. But he insists there are others in the wings ready to step up.

"Yeah, we'll miss him, but at the same time he'll be replaced by players that are very capable of getting the job done."

That too seems no idle boast.

The Bombers had three players in the top 10 for sacks last season — Willis plus rookie defensive end Kenny Mainor, with eight, and rookie defensive lineman Jason Vega with seven.

Also returning this season is CFL all-star defensive back Jonathan Hefney, who finished 2011 with six interceptions, a team-high 11 pass knockdowns, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one sack.

Brandon Stewart and Alex Suber, both settling into their third full season with the team, also put up some impressive numbers in 2011.

"I think our leaders have done a good job of keeping the team together and having everybody ready to play," says Johnson.

One of his gripes with the Bombers related to a demand Willis made to test NFL waters in his option year.

Johnson also dipped his toes into that pool for a second time in his career but, once again, the water proved cold. At five foot nine and 177 pounds, he is rather small for the NFL.

Now, at 28, it seems possible he may close out his career in Winnipeg.

"I love Winnipeg and the community has definitely embraced me. It's something I look forward to every year and everything happens for a reason and that's why I'm still in Winnipeg."

He also had his Twitter trouble last season, although in his case he offered and the team accepted an apology. He says he has no problems with the new social media policy the Bombers are ready to roll out to stop some of the silliness.

"It will definitely be good for us to have," says Johnson. "You've got to be able to say whatever you say on a social network ... in front of a million people. It's definitely good that the team took notice and is doing something about it."

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