“This year has been has great as I could have hoped."
At six-foot-seven, 248 pounds and with a wingspan that only seems to stretch from Transcona to St. James, it’s virtually impossible for Willie Jefferson to go unnoticed anywhere in this town.
We bring this up not just because the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive end was named the Canadian Football League’s West Division Most Outstanding Defensive Player on Thursday, but because in the search for difference makers in Sunday’s Western Semi-Final, the big man should be at or near the top of everyone’s list.
No question the quarterbacks – Zach Collaros and Bo Levi Mitchell – will be critical in the outcome. Ditto for offensive stars like Andrew Harris, Reggie Begelton and Eric Rogers – or ball hawks like Winston Rose and Tre Roberson, all of them divisional all-stars.
But for all the things Jefferson did this season to earn the top defender honours, he was added by the Bombers in free agency exactly for these kind of games at this time of year. And the club needs him to be at his disruptive-force best when he lines up across from Mitchell & Co. Sunday.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, right?” said Jefferson after Bombers practice Thursday. “I came here because I wanted go somewhere where I felt I could be me, where I felt like I could be comfortable and be a dominant defensive player. Knowing a couple of guys on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball and knowing how Coach O’Shea coaches his teams I wanted to be a part of that.
“I like how this organization came after me in free agency and I like how things have gone this season. It hasn’t been about one player, it’s been about the team.
“But,” added Jefferson, “the way things ended for this club last year in the West Final for them to be so close and now be in the same position this year… I’m ready to step up and do everything I have to do to get this team closer to a Grey Cup.”
Given his body of evidence this year as a Bomber and in his CFL career with the Edmonton Eskimos and Saskatchewan Roughriders, that could manifest itself in any number of ways against the Stamps. Jefferson led the Bombers in sacks, but also set a league record for pass knockdowns by defenders and led the league in forced fumbles.
He’ll bounce all over the line of scrimmage against the Stamps and occasionally drop into coverage. He’ll be in the backfield chasing Mitchell and any ball carriers and if he is double-teamed he’ll get those big mitts of his up into the sky to swat down pass attempts.
And all of this makes him so difficult to game plan against.
Earlier, before his chat with bluebombers.com, Jefferson was asked about the West Division Most Outstanding Defensive Player honour, which came one day after he was named to the West Division All-Star Team.
“I’m very happy. Another accomplishment in my career and I’m just ready to keep putting out some good work,” he said. “I’m happy to get the award, ecstatic to get the award. It just shows I put a lot of work in this season, I put a lot of work in this offseason. I’m just trying to be the best pass rusher I can be, the best defensive player I can be and this is the accolade that proves it.
“This season… new team, new system, new coaches, new environment, new teammates… for me to be able to come over here and get into this system and play the way I’ve been able to play is amazing.”
It’s about more than that, too. Jefferson and his family have been very active in getting to know their new football home and aren’t shy about using social media to provide the proof. He is unquestionably a gifted athlete – Calgary coach Dave Dickenson said just a few weeks ago he did not understand why the 28-year old wasn’t in the National Football League – but fitting in and starring isn’t just about what happens between the white stripes of a football field.
“This year has been has great as I could have hoped,” said Jefferson. “Being in a new city, somewhere that I haven’t really visited before and then having my family with me… this city has been so accepting of us. Everybody is smiling, everybody is waving and saying hi to me and my wife and little girl, it’s really made us feel at home. I can’t really ask for more than that.”