WINNIPEG – Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Mike O’Shea knows exactly what the Toronto Argonauts and quarterback Ricky Ray can do to an opponent and Ray isn’t all the Bombers have to worry about when they meet Thursday.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” said O’Shea, Toronto’s former special teams co-ordinator until he got the top coaching job in Winnipeg.
“It just so happens that the ball always travels through Ricky first. But, obviously, I’m quite familiar with all the guys they have and what they can do offensively.”
The Bombers play the Argos in the CFL opener at Investors Group Field. It kicks off an expanded season with the addition of the Ottawa Redblacks to the CFL East this year and the return of the Bombers to the CFL West.
The Bombers made a lot of changes between seasons and likely aren’t finished. The Argos have also made changes, although on offence coach Scott Milanovich says they’re ready to go.
“I expect us not to miss a beat offensively,” he said after the Argos landed Wednesday.
“Our expectations are pretty high, we’ve got a lot of players returning,” agreed Ray.
“You’ve still got to do it on game day.”
But he also said with little pre-season experience, he expects to make a few mistakes.
The Toronto defence sounds more like a work in progress under the guidance of former Bomber head coach Tim Burke, now back in a more familiar role as defensive co-ordinator.
“We’ll have a good defence, I think it’s going to take us some time,” Burke said.
The Bombers have their own holes to fill. The depth chart for Thursday’s game includes six players at middle linebacker, where they lost Henoc Muamba to the NFL.
On Wednesday, they added Canadian offensive lineman Gord Hinse, who played in Edmonton last season, although he immediately went on the six-game injured list.
Starting well is important to O’Shea.
“We’d like to come out there and be as physical as we can and set a standard, set up a minimum standard for us and keep building from there,” said O’Shea. “We’re going our there to win and set a pace for the season.”
If the Bombers want to see how rookie starting quarterback Drew Willy performs under pressure, they couldn’t ask for a better opponent.
Ray has thrown 3,780 completed passes for 251 touchdowns and three Grey Cups over 11 seasons in the league with Edmonton and Toronto.
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m going into my 12th year,” he said Wednesday.
Willy has completed just 101 for nine touchdowns and has only four starts in his prior two seasons as a backup in Regina.
The Bombers are staking a lot on Willy as they try to appease fans turned off by recent struggles, while the Argos want to get back to the Grey Cup after stumbling in last year’s East final.
Willy says keeping Ray off the field as much as possible is going to be a key for the Bombers Thursday.
“We definitely need to be efficient,” he said of the offence. “We need to make sure our drives take some time.”
Oh, and scoring touchdowns rather than field goals would also be good, he noted.
One thing Willy brings to the table is durability. He says he has only missed two games due to injury in his career, a hand injury in practice that cost him two games when he was in his sophomore career at the University of Buffalo.
The Argos brought rookie running back and Winnipeg native Anthony Coombs along. He sits third on their depth chart behind imports Curtis Steele and Jeremiah Johnson.
“This time its for keeps so I’m exited to be out there,” said Coombs, who also saw action in their exhibition game in Winnipeg.
Veteran Winnipeg offensive lineman Glenn January couldn’t promise a win but he did promise a lot of effort come Thursday night
“I think we’re going to be a passionate team and we’re going to be a well-prepared team,” he said.
“If we go out there and we do stumble and don’t get the win, it’s not the end of the world. It’s an 18-game season.”
The Argonauts finished 11-7 in the regular season last year but then fell to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East final. Hamilton went to the Grey Cup but lost to the Saskatchewan Roughriders at home in Regina.
“Right now we’re an average football team. We have a potential to be more than that,” said Milanovich.
After a 3-15 season that cost Burke his job, the Bombers were a long way from average last year. The Argos beat the Bombers all three times last season and also beat them in their first pre-season game this year, 24-22.
© The Canadian Press, 2014