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Bombers confident in Collaros as they chase third consecutive Grey Cup

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.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros (8) throws to Drew Wolitarsky (82) during practice at training camp in Winnipeg Thursday, May 19, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

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.

After Tuesday’s practice, Oliveira stayed on the field for more drills and was grabbing footballs tossed to him while his arms were wrapped around a padded goal post. He also quickly snagged tennis balls bounced at him.

He views himself as a hard worker and an “all-around running back” who can protect the quarterback and run the ball.

“Obviously, anyone at this level of football can run the football, but can you catch the football out of the backfield, can you run routes?” said Oliviera, who had 94 carries for 429 yards and two touchdowns and nine catches for 74 yards in 13 games last season.

“One of the best attributes of my football game, I would say personally, is my ability to catch the football out of the backfield. So, I think there's lots of ways where this offence and our OC Buck (Pierce) can use me in this offence for lots of mismatches on linebackers and get me in open space.”

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 kicking game will be scrutinized. The club used four place-kickers last year and settled on Sergio Castillo in early November – he was 5-for-5 in field goals in the Grey Cup – but he signed with Edmonton in the off-season.

Tyler Crapigna started last season, but got injured. Marc Liegghio was next and went 5-for-8 in field goals, but ended up doing the punting chores. Ali Mourtada (8-for-15) had a turn before Castillo was brought in.

Liegghio will handle place-kicking, punting and kickoffs, while Mourtada is on the practice roster. 

“I did all three really good coming out of university and that’s like just the attitude I want to have coming into this season,” said Liegghio, a product of Western University.

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.


GENERAL MANAGER: Kyle Walters (eighth season)

HEAD COACH: Mike O’Shea (eighth season; 2021 CFL coach of the year)

2021: Topped the West Division with an 11-3 record. Won the Grey Cup 33-25 in overtime against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

ADDITIONS: WRs Greg Ellingson and Dalton Schoen, QB Dakota Prukop, LB Malik Clements, DBs Tyquwan Glass, Donald Rutledge Jr. and Malcolm Thompson.

DEPARTURES: RB Andrew Harris (Toronto), WRs Kenny Lawler (Edmonton) and Darvin Adams (Ottawa), OL Drew Desjarlais (NFL, New England), DL Steven Richardson (B.C.), DBs Alden Darby (Hamilton) and DeAundre Alford (NHL, Atlanta), K Sergio Castillo (Edmonton).

PLAYERS TO WATCH: K Marc Liegghio, RB Brady Oliveira, Ellingson and Schoen, OL Geoff Gray, Glass, Rutledge and Thompson.

 This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2022.

Judy Owen, The Canadian Press