When the 2014 iteration of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hits the turf at Investors Group Field for Thursday night's CFL regular season opener, fans of the Blue and Gold may have their noses buried in their line-up cards more often than they might prefer.
The roster changes have been constant and continuous since late last year, but even with their 46-man roster set for the start of the season, the banged-up Bombers will be kicking off Week 1 with a handful of fresh faces and back-ups in the starting lineup.
The most noticeable difference on offence will be the yet-to-be-determined starting tailback spot, as 2013 East Division All-Star Will Ford has missed both of Winnipeg's preseason games with a hamstring issue that arose early in training camp. Ford has taken in just a handful of practices this past week as he eases himself back to 100 per cent health. Explosive newcomer Paris Cotton will be out a few weeks with a "tweaked knee" according to Mike O'Shea, so fellow first-year ball carrier Nic Grigsby looks to get the start against the Toronto Argonauts.
"I'm just going to go do my job," said Grigsby, who has also been a little banged-up as of late but has battled through since the Ford and Cotton injuries. "Coach told me to lock in — lock and load — so that's what I'm going to do. I'm preparing myself for the long-haul."
"You've got to grow up. Be a pro," added Grigsby, who O'Shea has spoken admirably of in the tailback's desire and ability to stay active enough to take full reps through camp despite some bumps and bruises. "You've got to be a leader out there. Be enthusiastic, and just seize the moment right now... Everybody out here is bumped and bruised up. Everyone from Toronto is out there bumped and bruised up. Come Thursday, Coach O'Shea is going to get us ready, prepared, and calmed down — our bodies ready to go to play a good game."
Starting centre Steve Morley, who worked on snapping the football all winter, shifts to the middle from the right guard spot for the upcoming season. The 11-year-pro didn't practice Monday with a tweaked hamstring and is listed as "hopeful" for Week 1. In his place taking first-team reps at centre this week is 2014 second-overall draft pick Matthias Goossen.
Fourth-year national lineman Patrick Neufeld, acquired from the Saskatchewan Roughriders for 2013 sack leader Alex Hall, will start at right guard.
Dan Knapp, a former tight end at Arizona State who joined Winnipeg's practice roster in mid-September last year, has won the starting right tackle job.
"I lost the majority of my fat, basically, and worked as hard as I possibly could this offseason and it's really, really paying off on the field," said Knapp, whose ultra-muscular build is much more akin to that of a speed-rush defensive end. "I was working out twice a day, five days a week. Speed training... That was consistent all through the offseason. My head was on straight and I knew what I needed to do to come out here to be successful."
On the other side of the ball, defensive backs Alex Suber (hamstring) and Marty Markett (ankle), linebacker Korey Banks (back), and national Donovan Alexander (calf) — who is the expected starter at field corner — are all on the one-game injured list to start the season.
To keep the ratio, national Matt Bucknor will start in place of Alexander on Thursday night.
"That's my role coming in. If I have to back-up then I'm willing to do that. If I have to start I'm definitely excited to do that as well," said Bucknor, who will look to make his first CFL start since his 2012 rookie season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. "Any chance you get to step on the field and put on the jersey is an opportunity to perform and showcase your talents. Definitely, it's something that I'm looking forward to."
A former NFL starting cornerback will line up in place of veteran field halfback Alex Suber.
"I'm versatile. I'm quick. I can move around. I got speed," said Bruce Johnson, who spent the 2009 through 2011 seasons with the New York Giants. "Just getting adjusted to the waggle and the new things like that, it took me a little bit going through the camps, but I've adjusted very well."
2008 Kansas City Chiefs rookie of the year Moe Leggett has won the starting safety job, while Chris Randle — acquired via trade with the Calgary Stampeders this past offseason — and third-year Bomber Demond Washington will man the boundary corner and halfback spots.
The defensive line, which O'Shea has described as a team strength, has two new faces from the 2013 unit in Jason Vega (back after a two-team NFL stint) and former University of Manitoba Bison, Louie Richardson. The perpetual rotation of Vega, Richardson, Bryant Turner, Greg Peach, Zach Anderson and Jake Thomas has made deciphering the starting unit a near impossibility.