Mike O'Shea will make his CFL head-coaching debut against a most familiar foe.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers kick of the 2014 season hosting the Toronto Argonauts on Thursday night. It will be O'Shea's first official game on the Bombers' sidelines and he'll face a team he played 12 seasons for and spent the last four years with as its special-teams co-ordinator.
"Coach O'Shea is a great player's coach and guys play hard for him," Toronto linebacker Shane Horton said. "They're going to come out physical, they're going to come out fast, they're going to come out playing great teams."
O'Shea, 43, a native of North Bay, Ont., took over for the fired Tim Burke, who returns Thursday as Toronto's defensive co-ordinator. Winnipeg posted a league-worst 3-15 record last season, its first at Investors Group Field.
The six-foot-three, 228-pound O'Shea was a no-nonsense, hard-nosed player over his 16 CFL seasons — he also played four years with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. O'Shea helped the Argos win three CFL titles as a player and was a coach with the Toronto squad that beat Calgary 35-22 in the 100th Grey Grey Cup in November 2012 at Rogers Centre.
O'Shea was the CFL's top rookie in '93 with Hamilton and captured the league's top Canadian award in '99 as an Argo. He's one of three players in CFL history — and only Canadian — to register over 1,000 career tackles and in '07 was voted the middle linebacker on the All-Time Argos team. He played 205 career games with the Double Blue, the second-most in team history behind fellow linebacker Don Moen (222).
Argos receiver/kick-returner Chad Owens fully expects the Bombers to assume the demeanour of their blue-collar head coach.
"Knowing Osh, he'll have those guys ready to play," Owens said. "It was sad to see him go but we're all happy for his opportunity.
"They're going to want to play for him, they're going to want to win for him so we've got to bring our best."
If there's a position Toronto has a huge advantage, it's quarterback where veteran Ricky Ray is entering his third season with the Argos and 12th in the CFL. The 34-year-old had a league-record 77.2 per cent completion average last year with just two interceptions to be named the East Division's outstanding player despite making just 10 starts.
Ray also finished with a record passer efficiency rating of 126.37, surpassing the previous mark of 122.46 set by Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers in 2011 and the CFL record of 118.77 established in '05 by B.C.'s Dave Dickenson. And on July 19, 2013, Ray was 19-of-20 passing (95 per cent) in a 35-19 win over Winnipeg to set a single-game completion percentage record.
Winnipeg counters with Drew Willy, a 27-year-old signed as a free agent this off-season after serving two seasons as Darian Durant's backup in Saskatchewan.
But questions exist about Toronto's new-look defence under Burke. The unit returns just four starters but did force nine sacks in last week's 41-23 exhibition win over Hamilton.
"I'd be lying if I knew exactly what I was going to see," Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said of his defence. "What I'd like to see is our defensive line get after the passer with a four-man rush and our defensive backs cover guys in man coverage.
"Certainly, Tim will have other wrinkles if that's not going the way we hope it will but ideally that's what we'd like to see."
The expectation is for an improved Bombers team in '14, but Ray gives Toronto a big edge in this game to spoil O'Shea's debut.
Prediction — Toronto.
MONTREAL ALOUETTES AT CALGARY STAMPEDERS (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET)
Life after Anthony Calvillo begins for Montreal, with former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith now the starter. He'll have former NFL star Chad Johnson in the lineup making his CFL debut. It will be Tom Higgins' first game as Alouettes head coach and marks the former CFL director of officiating's return to the sidelines for the first time since '07. Bo Levi Mitchell starts at quarterback for Calgary and faces a tough defence anchored by linebacker Chip Cox, the league's top defensive player last year. But Calgary still boasts running back Jon Cornish, the CFL's outstanding player last year, and slotback Nik Lewis returns after missing much of last year with a broken ankle. Another Stampeder worth watching is defensive lineman Charleston Hughes, who had a CFL-high 18 sacks last year.
Prediction - Calgary
EDMONTON ESKIMOS AT B.C. LIONS (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET)
Also making his head-coaching debut is Edmonton's Chris Jones. A defensive guru, Jones has a solid starter under centre in Mike Reilly, who was second overall in passing yards last year but also led all quarterbacks in rushing because he often had to run his life. If given time, Reilly has plenty of passing weapons in receivers Fred Stamps, Adarius Bowman and Shamawd Chambers. What will be interesting to see is Jones' influence on Edmonton's defence. Veteran Kevin Glenn starts for B.C., with incumbent Travis Lulay (shoulder) still sidelined. Glenn's a proven commodity who was 20-8 as a starter with Calgary the last two years. Receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux (hand) won't play but the Lions' defence appears solid up front, at linebacker and in the secondary.
Prediction - B.C.
HAMILTON TIGER-CATS AT SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET)
A Grey Cup rematch concludes the opening week. Saskatchewan defends its title minus running back Kory Sheets (Oakland, NFL) and receivers Weston Dressler (Kansas City, NFL) and Geroy Simon (retired) but still has veteran quarterback Darian Durant in tow. And the defence still boasts defensive linemen Ricky Foley and John Chick, safety Tyrone Brackenridge and cornerback Dwight Anderson. Veteran Henry Burris led Hamilton to last year's Grey Cup but former Argo Zach Collaros will make his Ticats' regular-season debut. Also, former Rider linebacker Craig Butler returns as a Ticat. Saskatchewan is still a solid contender but Hamilton has many vets feeling they've got a score to settle.
Prediction - Hamilton.