CALGARY - Offensive lineman Tim O’Neill is certainly looking like a grizzled veteran these days.
A diehard Vancouver Canucks fan, the Calgary Stampeders’ red-headed centre is currently sporting a beard the likes of which this city hasn’t seen since former Flames rearguard Mike Commodore became famous for his facial hair during the 2004 Stanley Cup run.
“I’m sure this is OK at the rink, but it’s not so great in the sun,” O’Neill said. “At least it’s not too hot yet.”
The bushy beard isn’t the only thing that likely feels a little different for O’Neill this spring.
For the first time in his professional career, the 31-year-old reported to training camp as a projected starter on the Stamps’ offensive line.
The former University of Calgary Dinos star won the job at centre with a solid pre-season performance last year, relegating Rob Lazeo to a backup role. After 14 CFL campaigns, Lazeo retired during the off-season, leaving the Stamps without the longtime vocal leader of their front five.
While the departure of left tackle Ben Archibald (free agent, B.C. Lions) and an injury to his likely replacement, Edwin Harrison, might leave the biggest hole on the field for the Stamps, it’ll be just as tough to replace Lazeo in the locker-room.
“I think we all learned a lot from him,” O’Neill said. “There’s a lot of guys here that took the lessons from him, and we’re all trying to apply that in our own way and just lead by example and work hard. The rest of it will take care of itself, really.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that can lead. I think we’re a group. It’s not just going to take one person.”
Now entering his fourth season as the starting right guard, 25-year-old Dimitri Tsoumpas is suddenly the most experienced member of the Stamps’ offensive line.
O’Neill and left guard Steve Myddelton are second-year starters, while Stanley Bryant and Gerald Cadogan, who have a combined three games of CFL experience, are the frontrunners to man the tackle positions for the regular-season opener. Harrison will miss about a month with a torn pectoral muscle.
“We just stand there, look fat, get hit and don’t do anything,” joked Tsoumpas, who missed Monday’s training camp sessions with a hamstring injury but is expected to return to the field soon.
“I mean, a two-year-old could practically walk out here and do what we do — if he had a large enough body.”
There aren’t any toddlers at training camp, but fifth-year offensive line coach Kris Sweet is working with a few baby faces.
John Bender, J’Michael Deane and Spencer Wilson are all trying to win jobs as rookies. The Stamps have high hopes one of the homegrown hoggies could eventually slot in at right tackle, but they’re still relatively raw.
“I tell my wife all the time that the one thing I do miss about college football is developing young players,” said Sweet, whose resume includes about a decade of experience in the NCAA ranks. “That’s what I feel like I’m doing now. I feel like I’m back in college ball because we’ve got a bunch of young guys that we have to develop. They don’t show up here ready to play — none of ’em do — so it’s your job as a coach to develop them.
“As the old saying goes down south, Mama sent them here for you to coach, so you coach them.”