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Offensive linemen Speller and Desjarlais have stepped up for Bombers in 'crazy' rookie season

CALGARY — The first time Cody Speller ever walked into the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offensive line room, the veteran players set the tone.

“They said, ‘If you want to be on this offensive line, this is what you have to do,’ ” Speller said Friday.

“A cut-up got tossed together and we saw a whole bunch of physical clips and they said, ‘This is the tone, this is how we play in this room.’ If you want to be a Bombers offensive lineman, this is how you play.”

Speller took it all to heart and began the process off learning how to be a Blue Bombers offensive lineman.

It was the same for Drew Desjarlais, who was the Bombers first pick in the 2019 CFL draft. He went about trying to fit in with the likes of Stanley Bryant, Paddy Neufeld and Jermarcus Hardrick and soon found himself to be one of them.

Rookies Speller and Desjarlais will start for the Bombers on Sunday in the Grey Cup against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Speller, a 25-year-old walk-on centre out of McMaster, and Desjarlais. a 22-year-old guard from Windsor, have been integral members of the team throughout the latter half of the season and into the playoffs.

“It’s definitely been a crazy rookie season,” Desjarlais said. “To win that starting left guard position and then end up right here in the Grey Cup, there’s really just no words for it.

“I think I just fit in with the guys and I’m really proud of that. It’s a physical group and they all appreciate anybody who’s going to come in and play physical.”

Speller spent the 2018 season on the Bombers practice roster so he had a little more time than Desjarlais to get comfortable with the season.

He started the year as the left guard, but got injured and was replaced by Desjarlais.

He didn’t get back into the lineup until starting centre Michael Couture went down with a leg injury in late October.

Speller has been the centre for the past three games, all Bombers wins, including two in the playoffs.

“We had to make sure that we stepped up,” Speller said before the Bombers held their last practice of the year at McMahon Stadium.

“We’re not letting those guys down. Once you’re in that room and once you understand the brotherhood, you’ve got to raise your level and you’ve got to make sure you bring it every single day. There’s a lot of pride in the fact that we were able to do it, step up and get to this level, but we’ve got to make sure we keep doing it.”

The two rookies and all the Bombers offensive linemen will face a fierce Tiger-Cats defensive line with the likes of Ja’Gared Davis, Ted Laurent and Dylan Wynn battling them in the trenches, on Sunday.

But they’ve already been up the task against a couple of stellar defensive lines — those of the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders — and have come away as victors.

“Those two have been nothing but stellar,” Bryant said. “Coming in, being able to play the style of football we play, learn the system, adapt to professional football from university.

“It’s just great to see those guys blossom and now we’re in the Grey Cup, so they’ve got one more game to show what they can do.”

The Bombers offensive line was an area of concern at the beginning of the season. All-star centre Matthias Goossen retired to take a job in law enforcement and all-star guard Sukh Chungh took a big free agent deal with the B.C. Lions.

And yet, with Desjarlais and Speller in the fold, the Bombers had the best rushing attack in the league and allowed the third fewest sacks in the league with 35.

“We missed Sukh and Goose but these guys stepped in and played well,” Bryant said. “It’s just the bond we have as an offensive line. I don’t think it really matters who is in there as long as you accept your role.”

Neufeld and Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea both pointed to the work of offensive line coach Mary Costello in bringing along the rookies.

“He has done a phenomenal job with us all season,” Neufeld said. “It’s also a testament to the culture we’ve built since about 2016. I think the biggest thing is we don’t want to let each other down. That has lifted the play of our guys on that O-line right now.”

Bryant disappointed to lose out on top lineman award

Stanley Bryant was hoping to make a little history and he’s not gonna lie — he’s a little bummed that it didn’t happen.

Bryant was a finalist for the CFL’s most outstanding offensive lineman award for the third straight season, but after winning in 2017 and 2018 he lost out to Hamilton tackle Chris Van Zeyl on Thursday.

“Any time you’re up for an award as a finalist, you always want to win,” Bryant said.

“I’m disappointed that I didn’t win but he’s a great guy, great player, has been in the league a long time doing great things. So it’s OK, I’m good.”

Bryant, 33, was looking to become the first ever offensive lineman to win the award three times in a row.

The good news is, no one has ever won it three times, period, and Bryant could still have a chance to break the record.

“You never know, I might get another chance if I continue to play,” Bryant said. “I’m getting old but we’ll see how things go.”