Bombers' big, bad backup

Offensive lineman Kelly Butler loves being a Blue Bomber, even if it means not having a starting...

Offensive lineman Kelly Butler loves being a Blue Bomber, even if it means not having a starting job. (BRIAN DONOGH/QMI Agency)

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:41 PM ET

WINNIPEG - This assignment called for some danger pay.

With that pesky little detail called training camp out of the way, your Winnipeg Blue Bombers took the field for their first practice, Monday.

And my job was to ask the biggest, meanest looking man on the lawn how he felt about losing his starting job.

That would be 6-foot-8, 330-pound O-lineman Kelly Butler, who was out-hogged by Glenn January and will likely stay at home for the 2011 lid-lifter in Hamilton on Canada Day.

“Um, Mr. Butler,” I began, watching my hand disappear into his.

Looking up, I could no longer see the sun. It suddenly felt like the temperature dropped 10 degrees and the north breeze was blowing right through me.

“It looks like Glenn has grabbed that starting spot, at least for now,” I managed, trying to keep my knees from knocking. “How do you feel about that?”

I imagined Butler, a sixth-round NFL draft pick who started an entire season with the Detroit Lions, sticking out one of those pipes of his and swatting me to the side like one of those tackling dummies, then stacking me up with a set of orange pylons.

Instead, I got this: “I’m happy for him,” Butler began, with a voice to match that penetrating glare. “He’s worked really hard in the off-season. He earned it and played extremely well. I’m his biggest supporter.”

Emboldened, I pressed on, and Butler did what he always does: answer without hesitation, never pausing, stringing the words together like he was rat-tat-tatting his fists on a speed bag.

“I’m excited to be part of the Bombers. There are a lot of guys that went home. I’m still living my dream playing football. I continue doing what I love.

“I just want to be a good team guy and help get the guys better. I’m excited.... because Winnipeg’s a great place, I love these people, I love these fans, I love this organization. You never know what happens in football. You go out there and practice and prepare like a starter. We’re going to do some great things here. And I just want to be part of it.”

By the end of the interview I still had all my limbs and I wasn’t impaled on a pylon.

But one thing did hit me.

Aside from Butler/January and a couple of other changes, this edition of the Bombers is almost a carbon-copy of last year’s.

I don’t know how many teams post a 4-14 mark, then return something like 20 of 24 starters the next season. But this one is.

The linebacking corps is the same. The secondary, basically the same, with a position juggle, here and there. The same running back. The same kickers. Virtually the same O-line. The same head coach. The same GM.

The single biggest potential upgrade has to be at Canadian receiver, where Brock Ralph is out (probably Aaron Hargreaves, too, as a starter) and Kito Poblah and Cory Watson are in.

Any talent improvement there is probably offset on defence, with the loss of sack leader Phillip Hunt to the NFL.

So if the Bombers want to be markedly better than 4-14 — and they’d better be — it’ll have to come from within, from lessons learned and experience gained.

That’s a lot to ask.

So is the idea of keeping quarterback Buck Pierce upright.

But the man at the centre of that task is convinced that as trying as 2010 was, having that year under their collective belts will pay off.

“Why I’m so pumped is that all of us played together last year,” Obby Khan said. “Mistakes we made last year we will not make this year. Guaranteed.

“I expect very, very good things.”

With a 0-0 record, who was I to argue?

Besides, Khan’s 6-foot-8 running mate was still in the vicinity.

And I didn’t want to push my luck.

The Bombers shouldn’t, either.

It’s time to put 4-14 in the shadows, and it starts Friday.


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