Bombers open training camp Sunday with lots of competition for starting slots
WINNIPEG - Paul LaPolice's message to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as training camp opens is pretty simple — no one's job is guaranteed.
"Just because they started last year doesn't mean they start this year," said Winnipeg's coach Sunday, as perhaps 8,000 fans ignored glowering skies to watch the first practice in Canad Ins Stadium.
"Coaches have carte blanche to say this is the change we have to make, 'We have to put this guy at this spot to figure it out.' And that message has been told to the players.
"Nobody's job is safe. That's the fairest thing I can do with the team. The best players will play. There is no entitlement here."
There is tough competition for several positions including punter, where import Eric Wilbur is getting a look after Mike Renaud struggled last season.
"Everybody is fighting for a spot on this team," said Renaud.
"It should be no different for kickers, long snappers, whatever the case may be. I'm very confident in what I can do."
His play in 2011 didn't match his solid 2010 season, when he was named to the East Division all-star team.
"He was inconsistent at times," said LaPolice.
"I had long talks with him about it. 'If you're the guy who was here two years ago, you're going to do very well.'"
For his part, Renaud seems anxious to bury a season that saw him benched and replaced by Jamie Boreham.
"Last year's last year. We're starting over," said Renaud.
In the end, the Bombers were no happier with Boreham, who struggled mightily to win decent field position in last year's Grey Cup. They released him in December.
As a Canadian, Renaud has a distinct advantage because of the import-non-import ratio.
But LaPolice says that should give no one too much comfort and Wilbur was also kicking a few field goals Sunday, a job currently held by Canadian Justin Palardy.
Palardy seems far more secure, however. In his debut in 2010 he set a single-season team record for accuracy with 86.7 per cent, although last season that slipped to 76.9 per cent.
"The team's going to do whatever's best for them," said Wilbur, who knows the edge every Canadian has means he has to do a lot more than kick just a shade better.
"Honestly, I think you have to truly outperform the competition."
He lost a job in Edmonton and was traded to Winnipeg earlier this year when Edmonton picked up Canadian Burke Dales. In the small world of the CFL, it was also Wilbur who replaced Palardy in Hamilton as a punter in 2010 when Palardy got the boot mid-season.
Tailback Chris Garrett is entering training camp as a starter but knows he has to prove himself to hold that spot, particularly with newcomers like Chad Simpson burning up the field.
"Right now I'm the starter, good feeling but nothing's etched in stone," said Garrett.
He replaced an injured Fred Reid last year and racked up 576 yards in just six games, including 190 in the East final that got the Bombers to the Grey Cup.
His odds of holding his starter's job look pretty good but he still has to keep an eye on that rearview mirror.
LaPolice said they knew Simpson was fast from watching his highlights. He might see action as a kick returner although right now the coach is keeping is options open.
"All those tailbacks are fast but they're also good running backs within the box. It will be a good evaluation."
A couple of players who needn't worry too much about their jobs had yet to arrive in camp Sunday — defensive backs Jonathan Hefney and Jovon Johnson.
Hefney was a league all-star in both seasons he has played in the CFL and Johnson was last season's top defensive player overall.
Hefney was set to arrive Sunday and Johnson on Monday, but both have to undergo physicals before they take to the field.