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Winnipeg Blue Bombers Coach Mike O’Shea can’t wait for players to reunite

The Winnipeg Blue BombersMike O’Shea has often been described as a players’ coach and a staunch advocate of everything Canadian Football League.

The former star linebacker with Hamilton and Toronto, and now head coach of the defending Grey Cup Champions, was understandably in a very upbeat mood during his first media availability following Monday’s announcement there will be a 2021 CFL season beginning on Aug. 5.

“Optimistic and extremely happy, not only for the CFL and the fans, but the players especially,” said O’Shea to kick off a half-hour Q & A session on Friday. “They deserve this and they need this. They’ve suffered a lot so it’s good to see them excited about the season. I mean we’re only a few weeks away from getting together.”

The players, and the CFL, have been sidelined since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last March.

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Training camps begin with the first on-field workouts scheduled for the second weekend of July and O’Shea understands that with the combination of protocols and 19 months of general inactivity for players, there is going to be a different kind of vibe to get used to during those first few days at IG Field.

“The actual on-field practice, besides some no-huddle and separating quickly and not gathering and standing on the sidelines together, those COVID regulations that we have to follow will certainly dictate some timing around the practice — and the way it looks and feels before and after a play,” explained O’Shea.

“Most players understand in a game situation when you’re out on the field and the ball is about to get snapped, you probably don’t hear the crowd. And you probably don’t hear the crowd again until after the whistle goes and you’re out of the play again. So it’s going to look different around the practice, but play-to-play it’s going to be the same.”

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As we have seen in Manitoba, there has been a divide among people getting vaccinated — those who are all in, some who are hesitant, and those who are vehemently opposed to rolling up their sleeves. O’Shea was asked about the potential for a similar division in the Blue Bombers locker room.

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“Over the course of time here, we’ve designed, and made sure our team is chock-full of respectful leaders that are intelligent and can express their opinion, and respect another person’s opinion even if they don’t agree with it,” explained O’Shea. “I would welcome healthy discussion amongst team members. I think any time you can learn — not only about your teammate and how they feel on important issues — that would imply there’s growth going on, and I’m all for that.”

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Blue Bombers General Manager Kyle Walter was able to keep a significant portion of the roster together that beat Hamilton 33-12 back on Nov, 24, 2019 at McMahon Stadium in the 107th Grey Cup. O’Shea sees that as being a critical factor to the team’s success in 2021.

“It’s a necessity, hitting the ground running on a short season and getting off to a great start is important, but it’s not the only thing,” said O’Shea. “I always do value a veteran presence, and in this particular year, it should prove its worth.”

Not every key piece of that championship roster will be returning though. O’Shea did not hide from the impact Justin Medlock had on the kicking game over the past four seasons. “You ask any coach this and the answer is generally the same. There’s only one Justin Medlock and he’s really hard to replace,” admitted O’Shea.

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But that’s exactly what the Blue Bombers are going to try to do with rookie Mark Liegghio who was selected in the fifth round of the 2020 CFL draft. “We’re not asking Mark to come in and be Justin Medlock. We’re asking Mark to come in and be Mark,” O’Shea said. “He’s very accomplished and obviously takes his job very seriously. You don’t have that kind of success and those kinds of numbers in university without taking it very seriously and being excellent at your craft.”

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Liegghio was good on 70/78 field goal attempts during his three seasons at  Western Ontario and also once booted a 67-yarder in practice — just because he could. So while experience might be lacking for the five-foot-seven, 189-pound former Mustang, it’s clear that leg strength is not.

O’Shea is confident the 24-year-old Woodbridge, Ont., native will be up to the challenge. “We all know he hasn’t been in a pro game, but he’s made a lot of big kicks,” said O’Shea. “I don’t know that just because the stadium changes and people pay more to get in the stands — how does that affect a kicker — I don’t know.”

Unfortunately for Liegghio and the Blue Bombers, there won’t be any pre-season games to ease the nerves and iron out any wrinkles with new long-snapper Mike Benson. O’Shea sees pluses and negatives to diving straight into the regular season on Aug. 5 versus a Hamilton team thought to be the Beast of the East — at least before the opening kickoff. “You want to evaluate your guys fairly, especially your new guys,” said O’Shea.

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“Given what we’ve gone through in the last bunch of months, it’s probably more important (that players) are in shape and ready to compete physically and mentally. So we need that extra time in training camp for ourselves.”

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