WINNIPEG – Zach Collaros offered to take some snaps during the Blue Bombers’ pre-season games, but the veteran quarterback was told it wasn’t necessary.
Such is the level of confidence earned by the reigning CFL most outstanding player and Grey Cup most valuable player.
The faith head coach Mike O’Shea and offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce have in his abilities to be ready for Friday’s season-opener at home against the Ottawa Redblacks isn’t lost on Collaros as he begins his 10th season.
“I think that they understand that I take it very serious and I’m going to put my best foot forward to do what’s best for the team,” Collaros said this week after practice.
His best foot (or best arm) has served the team well as he helped the Bombers win back-to-back Grey Cup championships in 2019 and last year. The 2020 season was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Collaros, 33, led the league last season in touchdown passes (20) and quarterback efficiency (111.0 rating) and finished second in passing yards (3,185) in the shortened 14-game campaign.
The franchise has never won three titles in a row, but coaches and players don’t like to talk about a three-peat.
“We have one goal when we get here, to win the Grey Cup,” said Collaros, who joined the Bombers in a 2019 late-season trade with Toronto. “We talk about it for about 10 seconds and then that’s it.”
Collaros will be backed up by Dakota Prukop, who was with the Edmonton Elks last season and the Argonauts from 2017-19, and second-year Bomber Dru Brown.
Winnipeg is returning a good chunk of last season’s 11-3 roster, including nine players who were CFL all-stars. Still, it does have some question marks on both sides of the ball and special teams.
One notable change to last year’s top offence is replacing star running back Andrew Harris, who signed as a free agent with the Argonauts in the off-season.
Fellow Winnipeg product Brady Oliveira is pegged as the starter in his third season, but he’ll be part of a tailback duo with Johnny Augustine.
Pierce said Oliveira and Augustine are both deserving to get touches and their different styles is a good thing.
“You want them to be individuals, and it’s our job as coaches to put them in position to do what they do well,” he said.
Winnipeg’s top-notch defence has the most changes in the secondary, but veterans such as linebacker Adam Bighill (the reigning defensive player of the year) and all-star ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat will provide leadership.
“We understand the standard has been set, but it’s not for us to stay where we’re at, we’re pushing to get better,” Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall said.
The defence will be tested in the team’s first meeting against a Redblacks squad under head coach Paul LaPolice, who left his position as the Bombers offensive co-ordinator after the 2019 Grey Cup victory to take the head job in Ottawa.
The Redblacks believe significant moves made by first-year general manager Shawn Burke, and the integration of new players into the team atmosphere, will help the team improve on its ugly 3-11 record from last year.
LaPolice said team-building was a key factor throughout training camp with a number of new faces joining the team.
“We did a lot of team-building stuff over the course of training camp to make sure these guys .. jelled with the new crew,” LaPolice said. “I’m proud of that and proud of what they did in (the pre-season) games.”
Burke was hired last December after the Redblacks parted ways with Marcel Desjardins, who had been with the organization since its inception in 2014.
Ottawa made three Grey Cup finals under Desjardins, winning it in 2016, but had missed the playoffs in 2019 and 2021.
One of Burke’s first moves was to sign veteran quarterback Jeremiah Masoli to a two-year deal to provide the Redblacks with some much-needed stability at centre.
Before becoming Ottawa’s general manager Burke spent 15 years with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats organization, where he saw firsthand what Masoli could provide.
The 33-year-old Masoli has been part of three Grey Cup finalists in Hamilton (2014, 2019 and 2021) but has yet to win a championship.
He was named the East Division’s outstanding player in 2018 and his rushing ability makes him a dual threat to opposing defences.
“We’re operating good, so there’s some small details to iron out, but besides that we’re executing pretty well against our defence right now,” Masoli said on learning a new system. “But you know we’ll see when the bullets start flying, that’s when it gets fun.”
Masoli will carry the brunt of the workload, but will also play the role of mentor to a couple of young QBs.
Caleb Evans returns with the experience he gained last season with the Redblacks. Twenty-five-year-old Tyrie Adams was a pleasant surprise through two exhibition games, but time will tell whether he can overtake Evans on the depth chart.
As much as last year’s QBs struggled to produce, averaging 13 points per game, they weren’t getting great protection as Ottawa gave up a CFL-worst 52 sacks.
Burke made some improvements to the offensive line with the acquisition of Ucambre Williams, Jacob Ruby, Randy Richards and Hunter Steward.
Burke also signed running back William Powell, who makes his return to the nation’s capital after having played the last two years in Saskatchewan. Powell can be dynamic when he’s at the top of his game, but he did not play in either of the two pre-season games.
It appears Devonte Williams will get the start in Winnipeg as late Monday the Redblacks released their injury report and cited Powell as limited due to an Achilles injury.
With Ottawa having finished at or near the bottom of nearly every offensive statistical category last year any improvement would be progress, but this team wants to compete for the playoffs.
“I’m excited to see how this group reacts in a game,” said 32-year-old Antoine Pruneau, who has been a staple with the Redblacks since its inaugural season in 2014. “At this time of year, it’s hard to say exactly where we stand, but I think everyone has the best intentions and we saw some exciting stuff in pre-season.”