Slow learning curve

JIM BENDER -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

Patience will be the key as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers coaching staff hopes to develop the 2005 edition of the club into a contender.

After making at least 11 changes to the roster from the one that finished last season, it will take time for many of these players, who were just introduced at training camp, to become more than just the free space on the CFL bingo card.

"Until we start playing games, I won't get a gut feeling for this team," said Bomber GM Brendan Taman, the man who's neck could be in this year's noose. "And that exhibition game (23-9 loss to Edmonton on Thursday) scared some people, including myself.

"But we have a good staff and we have a pretty good group of guys. If we can stay healthy, I think we'll be right there."

Here then is our analysis of the Bomber depth by position and yes, patience will indeed be the operative word this season:

QUARTERBACKS

Kevin Glenn had no sooner replaced former CFL MVP Khari Jones when fans started calling for his backup (Tee Martin). But it was Glenn's performance during injury relief that allowed the Bombers to deal Jones to Calgary last September. In eight games, Glenn completed 166 of 274 passes for 2,329 yards and 14 touchdowns, with eight interceptions. More importantly, he's a true on-field leader. However, there are those who say that ex-NFLers Tee Martin, Spergon Wynn or even Russ Michna could be the starting QB before the season's out. Whatever. Glenn should be helped by new offensive co-ordinator Mike Gibson who returns to the fold and will ensure his QBs have adequate protection up front.

RUNNING BACKS

Tailback Charles Roberts is simply the best in the CFL, even if he did finish second in rushing to Hamilton's Troy Davis with 1,522 yards, including six games where he rushed for more than 100. He added 53 receptions for 398 yards and five TDs to lead the CFL in yards from scrimmage (1,920). Roberts, who can still return punts and kickoffs, was the club's MVP nominee. Keith Stokes will spell him off and looks most comfortable doing so.

Fullback Scott Regimbald, acquired from Calgary in the Jones deal, adds a dimension missing since Mike Sellers was back there. He can not only get the short yardage, he has soft hands out of the backfield. And, at 6-foot-3 and 246 pounds, he can be a big help to the offensive line. Veteran Wade Miller is a capable backup.

RECEIVERS

Here is one major question mark not answered in training camp. Veteran slotback Milt Stegall returns after a great second half last season. But his 68 catches for 1,121 yards and six TDs was still below his lofty standards. Non-import Jamie Stoddard still has the most dependable hands and runs the truest routes.

After that, it's anyone's guess. Kamau Peterson is hoping to make everyone forget his 2004 campaign (50 receptions, but almost as many drops, for 637 yards and four TDs. Wane McGarity can be a game-breaker but he, too, has been known to drop the ball. Scott Cloman made the team without catching a single pass and the Bombers are still hoping to see what Vinny Sutherland, who was slowed by injury in camp, can do. Gilles Colon, when healthy, can also add some speed as a backup. Stokes was actually one of the best receivers in camp.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The Hogs go into this season sans veterans Moe Elewonibi (B.C.) and Orlando Bobo (retired, then suspended) but have welcomed back Mike Abou-Mechrek (Ottawa). Dan Gyetvai has made almost a miraculous recovery from ACL surgery and import tackle Jermese Jones has improved over last year. Dave Mudge, the CFL's top O-lineman of 2001, is already feeling better than he did last season when he was still recovering from knee surgery. Veteran Matt Sheridan, the club's top O-lineman last year, has moved to centre to replace Elewonibi. Cory Annett, at least for now, is the backup.

The O-line improved tremendously after Jim Daley took over from Dave Ritchie as head coach but it is still very much in transition as it was plagued with injuries and defections once again this training camp. If the Hogs cannot establish some sort of supremacy, it won't matter who is at QB.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The focus of much hand-wringing until the Bombers sent an SOS to Elfrid Payton last year, this could be the most improved unit on the team. Acquiring defensive lineman Joe Fleming in the Jones deal gave the D-line an instant upgrade and a twin tower, of sorts, for Doug Brown, the club's most outstanding defensive player last season. Tom Canada wowed everyone in his rookie year, at least until mid-season, and has looked just as good in training camp. Both veteran Antwone Young and rookie Gavin Walls are still fighting for that other DE spot and either one would be a worthy starter. Although the club lost Tyson St. James, Jon Oosterhuis remains one of the best interior swing men in the CFL and keep an eye on rookie DL Martin Lapostolle.

LINEBACKERS

The Bombers may never overcome the unexpected retirement of Mo Kelly, easily one of the best two defenders last season and a leader both on and off the field. Both Lamar McGriggs and Ryland Wickman have returned and will continue to offer leadership of their own. Sean Woodson is quickly rounding into his all-star form of yesteryear and Willie Fells was pencilled in as the starting MLB for the season-opener in Saskatchewan. Ron Ockimey could still play a part.

Canadian sophomore Neil McKinlay and rookie Scott Mennie will back up and play special teams.

SECONDARY

School's still out on these guys, especially after the club released veteran cornerback Eric Carter and the only other returning veteran, DB Ricky Bell, retired on the eve of training camp over a contract dispute. The Bombers did acquire safety Wes Lysack in the Jones deal to anchor the pass defence and landed such free agent DBs as Omar Evans and William Fields (both Calgary). The club is also expecting big things from Tim Carter, who is returning from elbow surgery and Cedric Dickerson earned a starting spot after being relegated to the practice roster most of last season.

Stanford Samuels is the dime back with Canadians Shawn Gallant at backup S and Boyd Barrett a backup CB.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Jon Ryan has continued to impress with his booming punts and his placekicking is pretty good, too. Troy Westwood, who can also blast some punts, is a dependable placekicker. FB Chris Cvetkovich is still the best long snapper the club has had in years while Sheridan is a solid short snapper.

Stokes led the CFL in both kickoff (56 for 1,112 yards and one touchdown) and punt returns (80 for 949 and four TDs), and was named the CFL's 2004 most outstanding special teams player. He will get help from McGarity, Roberts and possibly, Sutherland, this year.

Kick coverage looked solid in both pre-season games.

PREDICTION: Battle for fourth.


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