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Veteran Bombers Jefferson, Jeffcoat bring smarts to the gridiron

Willie Jefferson Winnipeg Jets Willie Jefferson - The Canadian Press

WINNIPEG — Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat don’t care if fans or opponents think they’re getting old.

The Blue Bombers’ 32-year-old pass rushers plan to excel this season by using their football smarts and experience.

“The older you get, the more you can absorb, the more you can learn, the more you can get better because of that. You’ve seen a lot,” Jeffcoat said following Tuesday’s practice at Winnipeg’s training camp.

It may even a bit of an advantage if opposing players or coaches think they’ve lost a step or two.

“I would love for one of these offensive linemen or one of these offensive co-ordinators to think of me as old or think that I can’t move and try not to give me the respect that I deserve, or that Jackson deserves, or that the defence deserves,” Jefferson said.

“We’re going to go out there and show them. Just like that.”

Both defensive linemen inked one-year extensions with the Bombers rather than test free agency.

They wanted to stick with a team that returned a lot of players after setting a franchise record for wins last season (15-3) but fell short at the end. Winnipeg failed to capture a third straight Grey Cup after losing 24-23 to the underdog Toronto Argonauts in last year’s CFL championship game.

“I like it here,” Jeffcoat said. “I like what we got. I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth about the last game so I wanted to do something special with these guys.”

Jeffcoat missed six games last season because of a hip injury but said he’s feeling good after an off-season program back home in Texas that keyed on different elements, such as mobility.

“I feel really good,” said Jeffcoat, who’s entering his sixth CFL season, all with Winnipeg. “I love playing out here and feeling healthy and playing football.”

In his dozen games, Jeffcoat had 20 defensive tackles, four quarterback sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.

Jefferson returns for his fourth season with the Bombers and eighth overall.

He played 18 games last year and racked up 33 tackles, seven sacks, a pair of forced fumbles and one interception for a touchdown.

“To be able to be around and still be as into the game, as dynamic as we are, that has to say something about our nutrition and the way we take care of ourselves, during the season and in the off-season,” Jefferson said.

Both guys pointed out what a great season defensive end Shawn Lemon had last year with the Calgary Stampeders. He had a career-high 29 tackles in 17 games, matched his career-best 14 sacks (second in the league), forced five fumbles and was the West Division’s nominee for most outstanding defensive player.

Lemon, 34, was signed by the B.C. Lions in February.

“They say he’s old, but I think it’s really just a number,” Jeffcoat said. “If you keep your body healthy, if you make sure about your nutrition, making sure you’re doing what you have to do for your body, you can play a long time.”

Jefferson and Jeffcoat also look forward to their roles as mentors, particularly with the drafted players.

“They’ve been watching us since they’ve been in college, for most of them, so that’s something that we, as older guys, take personally,” Jefferson said. “We want the young guys to be like us in a sense.”

They’ve been talking a lot to defensive end Anthony Bennett, Winnipeg’s top pick in this year’s CFL draft (eighth overall).

“He’s like a little sponge,” Jeffcoat said. “He’s been coming up to us, trying to pick our brains whenever he can. That’s kind of how I was when I was a young guy.

“And I’m still trying to pick people’s brains. If the young guys do something that I like and I want to kind of learn it, I ask them how they do it. This is a great group to learn and to grow and so it’s fun.”

Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said statistical analysis shows a lot of defensive ends get better as they age.

“The way they see the game, their understanding of the guy across from them, how to beat them,” O’Shea said, describing what experience brings.

“I think, quite possibility, their understanding of the opportunity on each play. Maybe they have a better understanding of each play, how it’s going to unfold and where their opportunity lies.”

Winnipeg’s defence dominated the league the past few years. Last season it allowed the fewest points and held opponents to the lowest net yardage.

When it comes to his goals for this season, Jeffcoat isn’t looking at statistics.

“Win. Just want to win,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2023.