ELLIE Blackburn has forecast more time in the midfield in 2019, as the Western Bulldogs try to cover for departed duo Emma Kearney and Jenna Bruton.
Kearney, the 2018 AFL Women’s best and fairest, and young star Bruton moved to expansion club North Melbourne during the off-season.
Blackburn, who captained the Dogs to the 2018 flag while standing in for the suspended Katie Brennan, had split her time between the middle and half-forward in the premiership-winning run.
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"They're two big-game players we will definitely miss, but that opens the door for other girls to step into the midfield group," Blackburn told AFL.com.au.
"I played a bit more in the midfield last season, so the opportunity will open up for more game time there.
"Monique Conti, who shone in the Grand Final (winning the best-on-ground medal), will obviously get a bit more midfield time, as will some of the recruits.
"We've got a pretty versatile team, so I don't think you can just put it down to a group of four or six. A lot of girls will roll through there, which is great."
Blackburn said recruit Belinda Smith, who was signed as a delisted free agent from Fremantle in June, had been impressive in pre-season training.
"She has been phenomenal. Her leadership on the field is exceptional and she's training the house down, so I'm impressed with the way she's going about it," Blackburn said.
"(Draftee) Eleanor Brown is slowly coming out of her shell and involving herself in everything.
"Her fitness levels are incredible. She's been taking it to the top endurance girls in Brooke Lochland and Libby Birch in our running sessions."
The Bulldogs are under no illusions and know their flag defence will be tough, especially given the turnover of players at each team and the short season.
"We had to make sure we worked hard (in winter) and came back even fitter than we had last year, knowing the competition was going to keep improving," Blackburn said.
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Blackburn, 23, works for youth homelessness agency Ladder, the official charity of the AFL Players’ Association and a charity partner of the AFL.
"Originally, I was a development coach working with the young people, but now I'm in our head office and get to oversee a few more of our programs and get to do a bit of work with our mentor program," she said.
"Last week we had a thank you function for our Ladder participants. The AFL was great in holding a lunch with the Atlantic Group for young people from the Latrobe Valley (in Victoria's east), whose primary focus is on employment.
"It's great the work our crew does down there to support these young people, helping them find employment, training and giving them (work experience).
"The work we do is pretty phenomenal and hopefully we can change a few young lives in the long run."