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Bombers return game looks to be in good hands with Nelson and Whitehead

It would seem the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ return game is in good hands this season.

Exhibit A is Charles Nelson, the man who returned kicks and punts in the Bombers’ season-opening win over the B.C. Lions.

Nelson, who made his CFL debut late last season, showed glimpses of what he might bring this season with his quickness and elusiveness against the Lions. He had two solid punt returns called back by penalties and ran one that counted back 25 yards to put the Bombers in B.C. territory.

Exhibit B is Lucky Whitehead, the former NFLer who won a starting job in the offence as a receiver to start the season, but is expected to see time in the kick return game as well and could be a dynamic threat.

“I think they are interchangeable,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said Tuesday as the Bombers prepared to face the Edmonton Eskimos in their home opener Thursday night at IG Field.

“We like (Nelson) as a receiver too and we like Lucky in both roles also.”

The Bombers return game was not great last season. It was one of the more glaring flaws in a team that still came within a win of playing in the Grey Cup game.

General manager Kyle Walters made it a priority to provide O’Shea with at least one player who could be used as a designated international kick returner and Nelson and Whitehead battled for the spot all throughout training camp.

Lo and behold, they both made the team and were in the lineup for Week 1.

While Whitehead dazzled with his speed throughout the pre-season, Nelson has proven to be no slouch himself.

“It’s a few factors,” O’Shea said of the 5-foot-8, 174-pound Nelson. “One, he’s damn good. He’s real shifty. For cover teams, he’s hard to see back there. He’s so quick, in and out of areas and given his stature, he’s hard to track sometimes.”

Of course, O’Shea could just as easily have been describing Whitehead, a 5-foot-10, 177-pounder who had over 1,000 return yards with the Dallas Cowboys over a 30-game stint.

“We do a lot of things similar,” Nelson said.

“Lucky is getting in there on offence so I felt like they used me back there at returner just to keep us both fresh and going. If Lucky’s back there, or if I’m back there, we’re both playmakers when we get the ball in our hands.”

It’s not clear what configuration the Bombers will use in their receiving corps on Thursday as Chris Matthews could return to the lineup after missing Week 1 with a lower body injury.

But no matter what changes occur, they should have a decent return game.

Nelson, 23, said this is what he was born to do.

“All my life,” Nelson said. “When I was a little kid I started out as a returner, when I got to college I did the same thing and just kept it going from there.

“You know you’re getting the ball on that play. There’s nobody else that the ball is going to but you. You know you’re going to get an opportunity to play and do something and that’s what I love about it.”

He doesn’t have quite the resume that 27-year-old Whitehead has, but Nelson certainly doesn’t lack confidence.

“It’s just knowing my own skill set, knowing what I can do with the ball, and knowing this team and what we can do to be the best return unit out there,” Nelson said.

“It’s about having great vision, setting up things that might not be there in the beginning but ultimately turn into a great return.

“It’s definitely different with 12 guys on the field and guys who are getting paid (as opposed to college) it’s still looking for the open field and hitting it.”

Matthews ready for season debut against Eskimos

Chris Matthews says he “definitely feels ready” to get in the lineup for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this week, but head coach Mike O’Shea still hasn’t committed to playing the team’s prized free-agent receiver.

Matthews, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver who has shone in the CFL and NFL over the last seven years, missed Week 1 with a lower body injury but was able to practice this week with the Bombers.

“I’ve been getting everything worked out, getting the body right, the mind right and I’ll be ready,” Matthews said Tuesday. “They brought me here to win and now it’s time to go. Now it’s just, is the chemistry gonna be right? Are we gonna have everything hitting on all cylinders. We don’t know. But I’m ready, I know that.”

Asked if Matthews will play Thursday, O’Shea replied, in typical fashion: “We’ll see tomorrow.”

— Wyman