This week sees the return of BC Lions football, and it also marks the start of a new era for this team. Many veterans have been let go or have moved on and fans are going to have to wait and see if the talent Wally Buono and company have assembled can keep this team competitive in the always tough Western Division of the Canadian Football League.
Let’s take a look at the Lions as they enter the 2009 season, and introduce you to the new names you should be keeping an eye on.
Key Deletions: Jason Clermont, Stefan Logan, Bret Anderson, Rob Murphy, Kelly Bates
Key Additions: Emmanuel Arceneaux, Terence Scott, Martell Mallett
Their time is now: Walter Stith, Dean Valli, Alexis Bwenge, Rolly Lumbala, Ian Smart, Paris Jackson, Ryan Grice-Mullen
Early in the off-season Wally Buono chose to name Buck Pierce as his starting quarterback, the thinking being that having a clear number one and number two would provide everyone with the chance to come to camp prepared. Off-season workouts with fitness guru Chris Boyko saw a stronger and more toned Buck Pierce show up for training camp, knowing that he was the guy. Pierce had decent numbers in the preseason, except in one area; getting the ball in the end zone. This trend carried over from last year’s Western Final, and is starting to become a concerning trend. Field goals aren’t going to get you a lot of wins in this league, and Pierce and the Lions offense have to find ways to finish drives when they get in the red zone.
It will also be interesting to see if Pierce’s newly designed workout regime will be able to keep him healthier this season. Part of the Lions problems the past couple of seasons, has been the inconsistency on offense, and behind centre. One week it’s Pierce, he gets on a roll, then he gets hurt. The next week it’s Jackson…and so on and so on. With a new offense and new personnel, continuity at the quarterback position is going to be essential to getting everyone on the same page, which was obviously the thinking behind Wally’s decision to name a starter going into camp.
Behind Pierce, Jarious Jackson returns for another season. Obviously somewhat disappointed he didn’t get a chance to compete for the starters job, Jackson is the consummate team player and seems to perform better coming off the bench in a relief roll. Zac Champion returns for his second season, and he’s joined by newcomer Travis Lulay, who was perhaps the most impressive performer of the four in the preseason, and has already moved past Champion on the depth chart.
The BC Lions were pretty much prepared to lose outstanding CFL tackle Rob Murphy during the 2009 off-season, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy to replace the man that his former teammates credit with instilling attitude into the BC offensive line. Throw in the trade to Winnipeg of guard Kelly Bates to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the left side of the offensive line is overhauled in 2009.
Last years backup Walter Stith held of Darren Marquez at the left tackle spot, while Dean Valli slips into Bates position. Valli, who banged up his knee a bit in camp and missed sessions, looked to have been passed on the depth chart by Jon Hameister-Reis but a late shoulder injury to him, vaulted Valli back into the spot. Angus Reid holds down the fort once again at centre, while Sherko Haji-Rasouli and Jason Jimenez round out the starters.
The injury to Hameister-Reis, who’s likely gone for the majority of the season, left the Lions with a bit of a depth issue, so in addition to rookie Justin Sorensen and Andrew Jones, the Lions have added veteran free agent Bobby Singh to the practice roster for insurance.
One departure the Lions were not really counting on was Stefan Logan. The club was no doubt salivating at the options of designing a playbook around the shifty scat back that was starting to assert himself as a star in the league by the end of last season. The two sides had even verbally agreed to a contract extension according to reports. But then a late offer came in from the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and Logan took them up on it.
When the dust settled, newcomer Martell Mallet and veteran Ian Smart will start the year in the backfield for the Lions. Smart was the most effective of the backs in pre-season, but by using him in that role the fear is your return game suffers and no replacement has emerged out of training camp. Buono had stated he wouldn’t use his featured back in a duel role, but seemed to rethink that when Smart went back for a few returns. Martell Mallet who was hampered with a sprained knee in camp, showed enough in the final game of the pre-season to win the other spot. It remains to be seen how the team will utilize Smart and Mallet, but look for Smart to see a lot of passes coming out of the backfield with the intention of taking advantage of his speed, while Mallett may see the ball when tougher yards are needed. At fullback, Lyle Green has been moved to slotback so up and comers Rolly Lumbala and Alexis Bwenge have a chance to play a bigger role in the offense.
Young junior star Andrew Harris will bide his time on the practice roster under the safety of territorial protection and will be brought along slowly by the team after a very impressive camp where he at times looked like the best back on the field.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the earliest your likely to see Stefan Logan if at all this year is late September or early August, as it appears he’s headed to the Steelers main camp.
No doubt the biggest bombshell in the off-season was the release of popular slotback Jason Clermont, but the Lions side of the story was one of philosophy change, and what they felt were the wasted talents of Paris Jackson. The Lions felt they weren’t fast enough at the spot Clermont filled and that problem contributed to the double teaming of Geroy Simon. With Jackson moving into the slot, the Lions will be looking to returnees Ryan Grice-Mullen and Rufus Skillern, while looking for contributions from newcomers Emmanuel Arceneaux and Terence Scott. The always ready and capable Lyle Green moves to the slot and will be interchanged with Cory Rodgers, Greg Hetherington, and O’Neil Wilson.
Geroy Simon will once again be the featured receiver of the bunch, with the hope being that with more speed and some different schemes he can escape some the double teams he’s been seeing because if they double him, Jackson can make them pay.
The Lions will hope they find another deep threat receiver in this group as well and look for Jackson to thrive in his new role.
Key Losses: Tyrone Williams, Otis Floyd, Cam Wake, Jamal Johnson, Jay Pottinger
Key Additions: Anton McKenzie, Jonathon Williams, Gary Butler, Nautyn McKay-Loescher
Their time is now: Ricky Foley, Jeremy Gibbs
Let’s get one thing out of the way, no one is going to replace Cam Wake. Now that we’ve said that, how do you replace the production of Cam Wake? You have to try and do it by committee and when the BC Lions line up and pin their ears back on defense Ricky Foley will start in end spot of the departed Wake. He’ll be helped by a combination of Nautyn McKay-Loescher and newcomer Gary Butler, who beat out second year player Caesar Rayford for the job. The rest of the starting line will see Aaron Hunt, Jeremy Gibbs and Brent Johnson line up beside Foley, with free agent signing Jonathon Williams also making the roster.
The Lions prized free agent signing was linebacker Anton McKenzie formerly of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and he’ll team with Javy Glatt in two linebacker set that will be supported by Korey Banks from the secondary. Terna Nande and rookie James Yurichuk fill out the reserves while late camp arrival Courtney Smith awaits his chance on the practice roster.
The recent release of Jamal Johnson from the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, could see linebacker and special teams demon move back to the Leos, but at the time this was written the clubs were exchanging contracts. The problem is with this formation the Lions have adapted, Johnson likely wouldn’t start, and that may be a key to his decision on whether to return to BC. Failing that it seems as though Reggie Hunt would be plan B and both Calgary and Edmonton seem to have expressed interest in Johnson as well.
The one area the Lions have remained consistent in is the secondary, where the team will still be lead by the wily leadership of safety Barron Miles. Lavar Glover and Dante Marsh return to defend the corners, while Korey Banks, Jerome Dennis, Ryan Phillips and rookie Darren Toney fill out the DB’s. Tad Crawford and second year player Jason Arakgi will also see time at safety.
This group went through struggles in the first half of last season, but picked things up in the second. The Lions will need them to be good from the start as this team gels in other areas. As mentioned earlier, Banks looks to have a much more active role in the defense this year, not only defending the pass but supporting the linebackers as a nickle back, and coming on the occasional blitz package.
Wally Buono has chosen to keep two kickers on the active roster, both non-imports in Paul McCallum and Sean Whyte. Whyte has been brought along the last two years on the clubs practice roster, and has made great strides in his game, most noticeably in the punting area. In the pre-season, Whyte did well in his game while McCallum struggled. Look for Whyte to take kickoffs, to start while McCallum handles the punting and field goals, for now.
Watch for more great special teams play from Jason Aragki, as well as newcomer James Yurichuk.