Howell set for homecoming

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

WINNIPEG -- The guy who wears the Renegades "free-agent coup of the off-season" tag will be wearing different colours for the first time in many a visit to Canad Inns Stadium tonight.

But he hasn't completely thrown away his old familiar shades just yet, either.

"It's one of the best career moves I ever made. I tell Coach (Joe) Paopao that, and I thank him," said receiver Markus Howell, a Winnipeg native who played 84 games for the Blue Bombers between 2000-04 before inking a deal with the Renegades on March 9.

"I wear my blue gloves every day in practice just to remind me what can happen to you, just to stay focused, and just to make sure you don't get lost in the shuffle, to go out there and make plays. The rest of me is in red and black, but I wear my blue and white gloves in practice."

Howell wasn't the first, or even the second, receiver Paopao tried to lure to Ottawa from another CFL team. And midway through the season, his numbers are a pedestrian-like 11 catches for 193 yards.

PRODUCING BIG PLAYS

But the catch is, he has made some big plays, and he's also got the same number of touchdowns (zero) as the injured import Ottawa made its top priority (Ed "The Reneger" Hervey) and has turned out to be a better choice than Plan B (Chris Brazzell), given that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have already traded the whining Brazzell and his $150,000-plus a year salary to Winnipeg.

The fact Howell's a Canadian is a big-time scale tipper.

"We lucked out," said Paopao. "We got him at a bargain deal. Maybe he hasn't put up the same numbers as the other guys, but he's a reason they are catching the ball. He's running routes, clearing zones ... he's the real deal, part of the reason we've had success.

"He has speed, he's a hard working guy ... we're fortunate to have him on board."

Howell was a receiver until last season, when Bomber injuries, his own broken hand and his exceptional athleticism led to him a cornerback job. An offensive guy who would do anything for his team, he was solid in the secondary, but his heart was set on catching balls, not knocking them down.

"People think of the fifth receiver as someone who comes in only on second down, but in this offence I've been the focal point as much as the next guy," Howell said of his role in Ottawa, where Jason Armstead, Frank Cutolo, Pat Woodcock and Yo Murphy are the targets Kerry Joseph sees after the opening kickoff.

"For us, it's each game, who's going to show up, that's whose number is going to be called. We have plenty of packages."

When he became a free agent, Howell's versatility had him viewed as more of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none performer.

"I think Markus was at a point in his mind where he needed a change," said Bombers coach Jim Daley, who talked to Howell in December about returning as a receiver.

"He's a very good athlete and we wanted him back. It was a very big loss for us."

LATE GRIDIRON START

Howell, a former track star who didn't play football until Grade 12, knows what it's like on both sides of the fence at Canad Inns Stadium.

"I was in that visitors room playing high school football (for Daniel McIntyre)," he said. "It'll be a little flashback. Nothing scary. When I was a rookie, they put all the rookies in the dungeon, too. We couldn't be in the big locker room.

"It's cool, man. Winnipeg's a great environment -- 27,000 fans, screaming. It's going to be nice to come back and put on a good show."

Howell knows the 2-6 Bombers are starting to show their true colours.

"I know they have some solid character guys, like Milt Stegall, Troy Westwood ... those guys have been there," he said. "I know those guys want to win. It's not like they're just laying it down. Charles Roberts is a hard-nosed character, one of the league's leading rushers. I know the locker room has some stable characters. If you watch the film, it's a play here, a play there and they'd have a different record.

"I know in Winnipeg, the fans can get a little brutal at times. That's just because they love their team, they love the players, they keep it close to their heart. I know those guys will turn it around. Hopefully not (tonight)."


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