WINNIPEG - Winnipeg coach Mike O'Shea might not like the word "rebuild," but the Blue Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos have done just that — and in record time.
Both teams are sporting CFL-leading 3-0 records after missing the playoffs in 2013. The two will put their respective products to the test against each other for the first time this season Thursday night in Winnipeg.
The carpenter who nailed the Eskimos back together is O'Shea's former coaching buddy in Toronto, Argos defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones. O'Shea guided the Argos special teams and both men landed head coaching gigs between seasons.
The Bombers know what to expect and aren't thinking about past success, such as the nail-biter Friday that saw them squeak past the Montreal Alouettes by a single point in the dying minutes. (As O'Shea says, winning ugly is better than not winning at all.)
"We're well into Edmonton now and we're not thinking about what we've done in the past," the coach said after practice Monday. "They're going to be a very tough opponent and it's probably going to be our most physical game, our most physical, challenging game to this point.
"They're going to play hard and they're going to try to dominate us and we've got to be prepared for that."
Part of that preparation will be trying to limit penalties. The Bombers took 18 last Friday that cost them 148 yards.
With the return of Ottawa, Winnipeg moved back to its traditional home in the CFL West Division this season, which gives this game added significance. This is the first western opponent they have faced after wins over Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.
Quarterback Drew Willy says they know all that.
"I mean they're all important but . . . being in the West and having a chance to go up a game early in the season . . . this is obviously a very important game and we're treating it like that," said Willy.
Meanwhile, his offence could be without one of its leading receivers. Aaron Kelly didn't practise Monday and was getting checked out by physicians after reporting knee issues again. But the team seems to have a fair amount of talent for Willy to throw to in his first year as a starting quarterback.
Besides the obvious, such as former B.C. Lion and free-agent signing Nick Moore, there is Julian Feoli-Gudino, who caught the winning touchdown pass in his old hometown of Montreal Friday and has been subbing for injured Canadian slotback Cory Watson. Watson is expected to miss Thursday's game as well.
"That was the sweet part," Feoli-Gudino says of his second touchdown catch this young season. "I started playing football about five minutes away from that stadium."
O'Shea coached Feoli-Gudino on special teams in Toronto and says he knew he had ability then.
"I saw a very talented athlete, physically gifted and a guy who cared. . . It wasn't that Toronto didn't like him, I think he wasn't going to be given the opportunity there because of the guys ahead of him," O'Shea said. "When he got here, as I said, it was to compete at the No. 3 slot with the chance to come in and play, so he was taking the same chance coming here."
Offensive lineman Chris Greaves and safety Moe Leggett also aren't expected back Thursday.
Although he hasn't seen any action this season due to injury, the team also released running back Will Ford Monday. A CFL East all-star last season, he has been replaced on the depth chart this year by Nic Grigsby, the No. 2 rusher in the league right now.
Grigsby got the job by basically being the last man standing out of training camp. Ford was close to returning but O'Shea says with Grigsby and Paris Cotton, another talented running back expected to return from the injured list soon, there was just no room at the inn.
"It's unfortunate, he's a fast talented football player, I think people recognized that last year," said O'Shea.
"It sucks for the guy, we're going to pray for him," said Grigsby. "We all wish him the best opportunity and we're sure he's going to get an opportunity real fast somewhere here in this league."
Follow @tsedmonds on Twitter