November 8, 2019

Rising To The Challenge

Creator of chaos. Harbinger of havoc. Disrupter of dreams.

“Willie Jefferson? He’s a freak of nature, man,’’ the Bonecrusher, Derek Dennis, whistles admiringly. “A force. A good friend of mine but we’ve had some great battles over the years.

“You don’t come across many 6-foot-7 defensive ends that athletic unless you’re in the NFL.

“When he’s on, when he’s doing his thing, he provides energy for the rest of their line and chances are that their defence is having a good-to-great game. They feed off him.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re on your Ps and Qs when matched up against him. You only pick your game up when you’re going against someone who presents a great challenge.”

When breaking down Sunday’s West Division semi-final versus the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at McMahon Stadium, the ability of the Calgary Stampeders’ offensive line, in particular Dennis and Nila Kasitati at the tackle positions, to keep Jefferson at bay, to provide quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell passing lanes free of unwanted clutter, ranks high on the imperative to-do list.

A complicated task, to say the least. Jefferson ends up in the darnedest places, bouncing all over the line of scrimmage to keep the blocking schemes designed to muzzle him off kilter.

The 28-year-old from Beaumont, Tx., only set a league record with 16 pass knockdowns this season, forced a half-dozen fumbles and finished third in QB smackdowns with 12 en route to being named the West’s nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

When game-planning how to attack the Bombers, plenty of roadblocks pop up. There’s Adam Bighill, prowling the middle of the second level like a caged (ex)-Lion. League interception leader Winston Rose and sure-tackling Chandler Fenner lead the defensive backfield.

Jefferson, though, is the galvanizing cohesive that makes it all work.

And obviously, after prolific stints in both Edmonton and Saskatchewan, he’s lovin’ life in the ‘Peg.

“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, right?” Jefferson told the team website following Bombers’ practice at IG Field on Thursday. “I came here because I wanted go somewhere where I felt I could be me, where I felt like I could be comfortable and be a dominant defensive player. Knowing a couple of guys on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball and knowing how Coach O’Shea coaches his teams I wanted to be a part of that.

“I like how this organization came after me in free agency and I like how things have gone this season. It hasn’t been about one player, it’s been about the team.

“This season … new team, new system, new coaches, new environment, new teammates … for me to be able to come over here and get into this system and play the way I’ve been able to play is amazing.”

The challenge he presents is every inch as immense as the man himself.

“This is why you play the game,’’ says Kasitati, who’ll see a lot of Jefferson on Sunday. “You want to go up against the best. Willie’s one of the best. He’s done great things in this league.

“It’s all about preparation against players like him. He’s such a disruptive player; part of his being a freak of nature. I’m sure their guys rally around him so we’ve got to take care of business.

“It’s a mental game. Willie doesn’t talk too much. I like Willie. We kinda go back-and-forth with each other. It’s a mutual respect thing.”

When Jefferson does that Reed Richards (Stretch from the Fantastic Four) impersonation, arms rising high into the air, well, any quarterback might be forgiven thinking he’s trying to throw over the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai.

The five-man Stampeder attacking force field, though, has done an admirable job on Jefferson this year, limiting him to only a couple of tackles and no sacks over their three regular-season collisions.

“We credit that to the GP,’’ says another anchor of the Calgary offensive front, Ucambre Williams. “He’s their catalyst, for sure. Someone you’ve got to pay special attention to. A great player. You can never, ever go sleep on him.

“He’s going make his plays but we’ve just got to minimize those plays so he can’t have a bigger impact on the game.”

The Bonecrusher, a teammate of Jefferson’s two seasons ago on the Regina flatlands, fully understands the task at hand. Doing it well will go a long way in helping the Stamps along the way.

“Winnipeg went out and spent that money on him for a reason,’’ Dennis reminds you.

“They knew what they were getting.

“Willie’s a rare talent, regardless of what league you’re talking about. Pretty much the engine that makes it go for them defensively.

“You’ve got to respect the man. Respect his ability.”