'Backers in a battle

Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebackers Ryland Wickman (left) and Willie Fells watch practice from the...

Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebackers Ryland Wickman (left) and Willie Fells watch practice from the bench Monday morning. (Winnipeg Sun/Brian Donogh)

KIRK PENTON -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:28 AM ET

Ryland Wickman claims to have been here before.

However, while the Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker won't come right out and say it, his job has never been more on the line than it is right now.

There are seven import linebackers in Bomber training camp battling for three or four active roster spots. Wickman, who's entering his sixth CFL season, was in a relatively comfortable situation under the Dave Ritchie regime, but those days are long gone.

There's a new sheriff in town, and head coach Jim Daley is going to take the players who best fit his plans.

"Shoot, we've been battling here for three or four years at the linebacker position at every camp, so it's not too new of a situation," Wickman said yesterday after two practices. "This year they brought in some linebackers with CFL experience, and you can't let that get to your head. You just gotta go out there and play your game, and hopefully coaches feel that your game is good enough to be the guy to be on the team.

"It's been good enough so far, for the past five years, but you can't take anything for granted."

Wickman, 29, is battling at the middle linebacker position with former Calgary Stampeder Willie Fells, 28, and Tony Ortiz, 27. Ortiz has missed the past couple days with a bad back.

"We're all doing well, so it's going to be a tough decision on the coach," Wickman said, "but hopefully I'm doing a little bit better."

The only other incumbent linebacker is 37-year-old Lamar McGriggs, who's fighting it out with former B.C. Lion Ron Ockimey, 27, for the starting weak-side spot. Ockimey, however, has been slowed by a groin injury.

At strong-side linebacker, former Hamilton Tiger-Cat Sean Woodson, 30, is up against 28-year-old Travis Ortega, who spent most of last season on the Bombers practice roster.

All seven linebackers, if healthy, are expected to play Friday night in Edmonton for Winnipeg's first pre-season game against the Eskimos. Daley has said the pre-season games will go a long way to determining a player's future. He added yesterday his linebackers will also excel at special teams play.

"It's just the nature of the sport, so you always gotta be ready to go out there and battle and give it your all," Wickman said. "That's the kind of football player I am anyway."

The Stampeders cut Fells during their training camp last year, but he feels he hasn't done anything to hurt himself in Bomber camp after a year away from the game.

"I think I'm doing OK," he said. "I'm minimizing the mistakes and making plays."

Fells is also impressed with the talent that has been assembled at his position.

"The group that they finalize may be the best group in the West," he said.

For now, the Bombers plan to go with a 4-3 defence, which consists of four defensive linemen and three linebackers.

However, if they can free up an import position somewhere else, like on the offensive line or at receiver, the Bombers might be able to dress four import linebackers per game.

If that happens, Daley said the Blue and Gold could also employ a 3-4 defence -- three linemen and four linebackers.

"We have some speed at linebacker, which makes it interesting to consider the possibility of a (3-4)," Daley said, "and that could happen."


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