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Blue Bombers content with quarterback situation after disappointing season

11/02/2014 06:52 EST | Updated 01/02/2015 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Blue Bombers started the 2014 season with plenty of question marks after a 2013 campaign that saw them win just three times.

And while their 7-11 record this year means they'll miss the CFL playoffs for a third straight season and fifth time in the past six years, the Bombers did have some positives to point to as they cleaned out their lockers Sunday.

One of them was finding a bonafide starting quarterback in Drew Willy.

"I think Drew answered that pretty early in the year," said slotback Clarence Denmark, the team's leading receiver with 65 catches for 1,080 yards and three touchdowns.

"He grew into a guy that we're going to trust and a guy that we believe in. I think Drew is a good player and he's only going to get better."

Willy was picked up in the off-season in a trade with Saskatchewan after the Bombers' attempts to sign veteran quarterback Henry Burris and up-and-comer Zach Collaros didn't pan out.

Although he only had four starts in two seasons with Saskatchewan, Willy guided the Bombers to a surprising 5-1 start — even if four of those victories were against poor-playing East Division teams.

Willy's quiet, confident leadership continued as he played through some injuries and only missed one full game. He left Saturday's game in Calgary late in the first half with what he said was an injury to his forearm that weakened his grip on the ball.

He was replaced by rookie Robert Marve, who guided the club to an 18-13 win over the Stampeders that snapped Winnipeg's eight-game losing skid.

Willy, who turns 28 later this month, planned to return home to New Jersey and train hard during the off-season.

"I'm going to watch every (film) clip that we have, work on different things that'll improve my play," said Willy, who completed almost 64 per cent of his passes for 3,769 yards with 14 TDs and 16 interceptions.

"It's a big off-season for me and I'm going to come back, I think, definitely in the best shape and best mental state that I can possibly be in."

Head coach Mike O'Shea said everyone's job performance will be under review, including his own, but the quarterbacking corps was a bright spot.

"You go into a season with what people would describe as relatively unknowns and (wondering) how it's going to work out," O'Shea said.

"We feel we've got a very good quarterback stable. Brian Brohm, Robert Marve, Josh Portis and Drew Willy at the helm for the majority of the season.

"It's turned out well. That area has been addressed."

The kicking game also more than met expectations.

Rookie placekicker Lirim Hajrullahu was good on 40 of his 46 field-goal attempts, giving him a franchise-record 87 per cent success rate. He also tied the CFL rookie record that had been set by Justin Medlock in 2009.

"I'm not fully satisfied because I still want to play, so no matter any accomplishments can't make up for not being in the playoffs," Hajrullahu said.

He also took over the punting duties after Mike Renaud was injured and said he'd like to do all the placekicking, punting and kickoffs next year. He told O'Shea that in his exit meeting and said the response was that he'd come into training camp next year and compete.

The Bombers have a big goal to strive for next year as Winnipeg is hosting the Grey Cup game, a championship they haven't claimed since 1990.

One area that will have to improve is Winnipeg's defence, especially against the run. The team was at the bottom of the league in allowing an average of 135.9 rushing yards per game.

The offensive line also needs work as Winnipeg gave up a league-high 71 sacks.

Some Bombers pointed to a change in atmosphere as one of the biggest differences this season that made it fun to go to work, and work hard.

"I think heading into this season the focus was really changing the culture in the locker-room," said veteran offensive lineman Glenn January, one of the team's 16 potential free agents.

"I can tell you first-hand that mission was accomplished."

And that was seen on the field, too.

"Just games that we were down, you could just see it, that we still had fight," Denmark said. "No quit in these guys. I think that last game showed a lot of character about our team."

Both players said the change began with O'Shea, a man who earned their respect.

"It's easy to go out and put it all on the line for a guy like that," Denmark said. "That's what it's all about."

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