Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Andrew Harris (33) celebrates his first down run against the Edmonton Eskimos during first half CFL western semifinal action in Winnipeg Sunday, November 12, 2017. It’s a good thing Andrew Harris is ready to carry a heavy load to start the Blue Bombers season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Rookie Steveler to start season at quarterback for Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Chris Streveler wasn’t even born the last time a pure rookie quarterback opened a CFL season as a starter.

Hall of Famer Anthony Calvillo, currently the Toronto Argonauts quarterback coach, was the last player to achieve that in 1994 with the expansion Las Vegas Posse. Streveler, 23, will be under centre Thursday night when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers host the Edmonton Eskimos.

Streveler finds himself on the field Thursday thanks to crazy circumstances.

Starter Matt Nichols suffered a knee injury last week that will keep him out four-to-six weeks. Winnipeg had signed veteran Darian Durant to be Nichols’ backup, but Durant abruptly retired before the start of training camp.

The six-foot-one, 211-pound Streveler threw for 6,081 yards and 54 touchdowns over two seasons at South Dakota while rushing for 1,543 yards and 20 TDs. He was 10-of-10 passing for 140 yards and a TD in Winnipeg’s opening exhibition game — a 33-13 win over Edmonton — but completed just 3-of-9 passes for 44 yards with a touchdown and interception in a 34-21 loss to B.C.

“I wouldn’t say it’s daunting,” Streveler said. “It’s a really exciting opportunity.

“I don’t think we’re going to be out there playing conservative. (Offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice) is going to call the plays he thinks are going to give us the best chance and that’s how we’re going to do it.”

But with Nichols out, it will be up to a Winnipeg defence boosted by the addition of linebacker Adam Bighill to cool a Edmonton offence led by Mike Reilly, the CFL’s outstanding player last year.

Reilly, who had a CFL-best 5,830 yards passing last season, will be without two big targets. Brandon Zylstra (100 catches, 1,687 yards, five TDs) is now with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings while Adarius Bowman (120 catches, 1,761 yards, nine TDs in 2016) will play for Winnipeg.

Veteran linebacker J.C. Sherritt returns to Edmonton’s defence after suffering a season-ending ruptured Achilles in the Eskimos’ first game of the ‘17 campaign.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “I felt like I was ready, I had prepared to play in the Grey Cup had we made it but unfortunately we didn’t.

“It’s just a great, great feeling to have the ability to prepare for a game and know that you have the opportunity to go out and be with your teammates.”

Steveler might be athletic and have a strong arm, but the defences he saw in pre-season will be vastly different now. Winnipeg’s offence features versatile running back Andrew Harris but Edmonton has a huge edge at quarterback with Reilly.

Prediction: Edmonton.

Toronto Argonauts at Saskatchewan Roughriders (Friday night)

Quarterback Zach Collaros makes his first career start for Saskatchewan after being acquired from Hamilton. Collaros was the overwhelming favourite for the CFL’s outstanding player award in 2015 before suffering a season-ending injury. Since returning, Collaros has lost a league record-tying 12 straight starts. If Collaros struggles, Brandon Bridge of Mississauga, Ont., can again come off the bench. Toronto begins its Grey Cup defence with veteran quarterback Ricky Ray, the East Division’s outstanding player last year with 5,546 yards passing. Receiver S.J. Green will again be a favourite target while sophomore running back James Wilder Jr. provides a solid dual threat.

Prediction: Saskatchewan.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Calgary Stampeders (Saturday night)

Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell leads the home team on its quest for a third straight Grey Cup appearance. The Stampeders was a CFL-best 7-2 at home last season and 6-1-1 versus East Division rivals. June Jones begins his first full season as Hamilton’s head coach after compiling a 6-4 record in 2017 on an interim basis. Jeremiah Masoli, who orchestrated the 6-4 mark, is the Ticats’ starting quarterback with former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel as his backup. The Ticats have traditionally strugged at McMahon.

Prediction: Calgary.

Montreal Alouettes at B.C. Lions (Saturday night)

Head coach Wally Buono begins his final season as B.C.’s head coach. Two of Buono’s six Grey Cup rings came as a linebacker-punter with the Alouettes. The Lions won both of their exhibition games and defensively scored three TDs. But the offence, under first-year co-ordinator Jarious Jackson, continues to progress slowly. Having said that, quarterback Jonathon Jennings has two solid receivers in veterans Emmanuel Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham. Drew Willy makes the start for Montreal in head coach Mike Sherman’s CFL debut.

Prediction: B.C.

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