WINNIPEG — When Zach Collaros looks around the Winnipeg locker room, he gets a good feeling of déjà vu.
The Blue Bombers have returned 47 players who suited up for at least one game last season.
It was a campaign that featured the CFL club setting a franchise record for wins (15-3) before losing the Grey Cup 24-23 to the Toronto Argonauts to foil a championship three-peat.
The veteran quarterback, who’s entering his 11th season and fourth with the Bombers, said the number of returnees shows that players love being part of the team.
"It’s always great when you enjoy coming to work, so it’s always nice seeing familiar faces," Collaros said after Monday’s practice, where his backups are returnee Dru Brown and newcomer Tyrrell Pigrome.
"I’ve said it for a long time, I really think continuity matters in this league and we certainly have that. That’s not something you can just rest your laurels on, so to speak, but it is nice having guys back."
Collaros, the league’s back-to-back reigning most outstanding player, didn’t play in Winnipeg’s final exhibition game, but he’s ready for the regular-season opener Friday at home against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
All-star middle linebacker Adam Bighill should also be in the lineup after missing all of training camp for the first time in his 11-year career. After returning to practice Monday, he said new cleats he was trying out gave him an ingrown toenail that got infected and was painful.
He’s been impressed with a roster filled by so many returnees.
“I don’t know if I’ve been to a camp where you really don’t have an open slot on offence or defence,” Bighill said.
“I don’t think I can say that in any camp that I’ve been in. So you’re looking for depth, you’re looking for guys to come in and help play roles.”
Winnipeg hopes returning placekicker Sergio Castillo will bring consistency to its kicking game.
Marc Liegghio, who was cut last weekend, did all three kicking duties in his second season last year but had costly convert and field-goal misses at times, including in the Grey Cup loss.
The Edmonton Elks released Castillo for contract reasons 10 days before training camp, and Winnipeg scooped him up within hours.
Castillo started his career with the Bombers in 2015, left for other teams and then got picked up by Winnipeg in a trade late in the 2021 season.
He was good on all five field-goal tries in Winnipeg’s overtime Grey Cup victory against the Tiger-Cats before signing a higher-paying contract with Edmonton for the 2022 season.
Global player Jamieson Sheahan (Australia) takes over the punting.
Being viewed as Winnipeg’s kicking saviour won’t put too much weight on Castillo’s shoulders.
“I think if I could overcome an ACL (tear in 2017 with Hamilton) and being without a team for 618 days, I can overcome anything,” Castillo said.
“I’m excited. Obviously, there’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs, it’s normal, right?”
Castillo isn’t the only former Bomber to return to the fold.
Winnipeg is expected to have an explosive receiving corps, although the season debut for Kenny Lawler has been delayed.
The American wide receiver signed back with the Bombers after taking a lucrative deal with the Elks last season, but Winnipeg put him on the suspended list last week. The team announced it was due to a 2021 off-field incident that was expected to be resolved in three to four weeks.
The Winnipeg Sun then reported that Lawler had pleaded guilty this past April to an October 2021 impaired driving charge and is dealing with immigration paperwork.
On a happier note for the team, one rookie has cracked the active roster.
Defensive lineman Anthony Bennett, the team’s first pick (eighth overall) in this year’s CFL draft, has earned praise from his teammates and coaches.
"I don’t want to compare him to anybody, but he understands the game of football and I think he's a natural pass rusher," head coach Mike O’Shea said of the University of Regina product.
Bennett, who will have a rotational role, said he feels a bit lucky but hard work helped him reach his initial goal.
“Being honest, I just fought every day,” he said. “I went into camp thinking, ‘I’m going to make this team.’ It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I’m going to beat the older guys.’
“No, it’s a puzzle piece, that’s why they drafted me. I’m honestly going to be the ultimate puzzle piece.”
While the Bombers don’t have the pressure of going for a three-peat this season, the bar is set high again.
“If you look at the guys we have, what we’ve done in the past, the team we have, the continuity, we expect to be in the Grey Cup and we expect to win the cup,” Bighill said.
“That’s where our mindset is and that’s where we set our work targets at.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.
Judy Owen, The Canadian Press