Bombers' O-line ready to bring 'physical, nasty' play to Grey Cup
CALGARY — With practice just a few minutes away Cody Speller methodically wrapped tape around his meaty wrist.
It was just another day at the office, except Speller is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ centre. And the Bombers are preparing to play the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Sunday’s 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium. And an injury to Michael Couture has forced Speller to move from left guard to centre.
As a man snapping the ball, it’s Speller’s job to call out the blocking assignments and make sure the offensive line understands their assignments.
“It wasn’t too much of an adjustment,” said the second-year player from McMaster, who had competed with Couture for the starting centre’s job during training camp.
“I was able to get a lot of reps during training camp and a lot of meaningful reps during that time. Getting the starting reps at left guard really helped me kind of get used to the game speed of the CFL and see everything. Bumping into centre really wasn’t an issue.”
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Even during his five-year career at McMaster, the six-foot-four, 298-pound Spelling played up and down the line. That versatility has proved beneficial this year as the Bomber line dealt with injuries all year.
Speller started the season at left guard then was replaced by rookie Drew Desjarlais, the fourth pick overall in this year’s CFL draft. He played some tackle following an injury to Jermarcus Hardrick. Now with Couture hobbled, Speller has started Winnipeg’s two playoff games at centre.
Veteran Stanley Bryant said the offensive line has adapted and evolved as the season progressed.
“I’m not going to say it was difficult,” said Bryant, who has twice been named the league’s top offensive lineman. “The young guys have been watching us on film all season. When they stepped in, they were ready to roll.
“The offensive line has been physical, a nasty group. Those guys stepped up to the challenge and everything worked well.”
Head coach Mike O’Shea credits offensive line coach Marty Costello with smoothing out any bumps in the transition of players coming in and out of the lineup.
“It’s been pretty seamless,” said O’Shea. “Mike Costello has done a fantastic job bringing up these young guys.
“I don’t think it’s unlike other situations on other teams. When you play in the trenches injuries do happen. Our young guys have performed well. They have accepted coaching really well.”
The Bombers’ offensive line began year as a work in progress.
Over the winter, veteran guard Sukh Chungh signed as a free agent with the BC Lions and centre Matthias Goossen retired. Patrick Neufeld, an eight-year veteran, began the year on the one-game injured list.
Winnipeg opened the season with Bryant and Hardrick at the tackles. Couture, a 2016 draft pick who started two games last year, started his first regular-season game at centre. The guards were Speller, an undrafted free agent who appeared in two games in 2018, and Geoff Gray, a 2017 draft pick who spent time in the NFL before playing one game for Winnipeg in 2018.
O’Shea said Bryant and Hardrick were the templates for the younger players to follow.
“Our mix of veterans on the O-line have done a great job of mentoring these young men and showing them, exactly, what it means to be a Bomber O-lineman and the standard they have to uphold,” said O’Shea. “The young guys are willing to step in and do it the right way.
“The draft process has been great. Our guys have found the right talent and the right character to come in and do this.”
Bryant as been impressed with the play of Desjarlais, who spent four seasons at Windsor where he started 27 games at both right and left guard.
“He has been playing well,” said Bryant. “Drew has been progressing each and every game.”
Running back Andrew Harris said the offensive line was a huge factor in him leading the league with 1,380 rushing yards on 225 carries.
“Our O-line has an attitude,” said Harris. “All five guys, it doesn’t matter who is there, they play with a certain grit. They don’t quit. They are playing with an aggressive fashion.
“That’s probably the tightest group I’ve ever been around. They are a very tight brotherhood and it translates on the field.”
A season-ending shoulder injury to starter Matt Nichols has forced Winnipeg into using a two-pronged attack at quarterback. Veteran Zach Collaros, obtained in a late-season trade from Toronto, generally handles throwing downs. Second-year player Chris Streveler often replaces Collaros on potential running plays but also can throw.
Speller said the shifts at quarterback doesn’t change how the line goes about its business.
“Our mentality doesn’t change no matter who is behind us,” he said. “We have to take care of our job and make sure we project whoever it is.”