Can you smell it? Can you feel it getting closer? Yes fans the long hibernation known as the CFL off-season is coming to an end and across our country football fans are getting their colours ready for another great season of Canadian football, as training camps open everywhere and every team has its sights set on a trip to Vancouver in November for the 99th Grey Cup championship.
For the BC Lions, it’s a big year. The team ended the 2010 season playing some very good football and almost knocked off Saskatchewan in the Western Semi-Final. Heading into this year’s camp the club hopes to build on that momentum, return to the top of the CFL’s West Division and play in the Grey Cup in their newly renovated state of the art stadium.
But to get there the journey will be a long one and it all starts on Sunday, June 5th when those looking to make the 2011 squad hit the field at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops BC.
With the Lions finishing strong last season, the club elected to make continuity a key ingredient in their off-season planning. With the exception of a trade, a few free agent signings, a defection to the NFL and an unfortunate run in with the law, many players will be returning to the den to build on the momentum they ended last season with.
If you’re planning to head to training camp, BCLions.com has all you need to know on their training camp page. Bookmark it because if there are changes to the daily schedule they will post updates there. You can also download the club’s official Training Camp guide as well.
So all that said, take a look at the Lions as they head into training camp and begin their journey to a Grey Cup appearance in 2011!
A new leader emerges:
Last season the Lions fielded a very young team and many of the players were learning the CFL game. By the end of last season that growth was evident and the Lions started to show they had a lot of talent that was starting to get it. Early injuries to the offence and a revolving door at quarterback saw the team struggle out of the gate on offense. By the end of the year Travis Lulay had become the club’s starting quarterback and the undisputed leader of the offense. Nowhere was his growth more evident than in the Western Semi-final where he walked into Mosaic Stadium in Regina and nearly led the Lions to an upset over the Roughriders.
Lulay has all the tools to be a star in the CFL. Intelligence, toughness and the ability to pull the ball down and get yardage when nothing is there. He has the attention and respect of his team in the huddle and they are willing to follow him. That probably couldn’t be said of last season’s starter to begin the year. His arm strength may not be the best in the league but it’s more than adequate and he can pick teams apart by taking advantage what they give him. The beauty of Lulay is he is still learning and is eager to do so. He spent much of his off-season in BC and was a regular at the team’s practice facility,working on the offense, studying film and preparing himself to be the face of the offence. Look for very big things from Travis Lulay out of the gate.
Jarious Jackson returns as the backup and Mike Reilly will start camp as the number three, but the Lions have also brought in Corey Leonard, and Matt Johnson to compete. Knowing Buono’s knack for finding quality quarterbacks don’t be surprised to see the pecking order below Lulay change somewhat.
Protecting the leader:
Lulay will have better protection to start the season and a big reason for that will be the off-season acquisition of the 2010 offensive lineman of the year Ben Archibald, formerly of the Calgary Stampeders. The 6’4″ 322 pound Archibald will be protecting Lulay’s blind side at the left tackle spot, shifting last year’s promising rookie tackle Jovan Olafioye to the right side. The interior of the line will once again be anchored by the dependable and experienced Angus Reid. The Lions had asked Reid to assume a back up role to begin last season, looking to groom Dean Valli for the position but by the end of the year it as Reid returning to provide a calming influence on the line, showing the team he was still more than capable of being a starter. There will be key battles along the interior of the line in training camp. When the Lions drafted Justin Sorensen they likely saw him as a possible candidate for a tackle spot, but he is now listed on the depth chart as a backup centre to Angus Reid. Non-imports John Hameister-Ries and Jesse Newman are slotted in at left and right guard respectively. Dane Randolph and Nick Hennessy will slot in at backups at tackle while Andrew Jones and Dean Valli will backup as guards. Non counters Adam Baboulas (2010) and Yannick Sage (2011) will look to impress and possibly displace any of the previously mentioned backups along the interior of the line.
Running by committee:
Behind a steadier offensive line the Lions ground attack will likely be done by committee. Jamal Robertson returns as a duel threat from the backfield with Jerome Messam looking to improve on a solid rookie year. Injuries to Jamal Lee (knee) and Andrew Harris (torn pectoral muscle) will see both of those players get a late start. Rolly Lumbala returns at fullback and will again be a key contributor on special teams. With Yonus Davis no longer an option due to legal problems the Lions have stockpiled a collection of potential backs and have a poker in the fire on former Saskatchewan Roughrider and Hamilton Tiger Cat Kenton Keith who recently impressed at a free agent work out. Before that though, the Lions will see what they have with newcomers Tim Brown, Keegan Herring, Micheal Smith and non counting Tim Cronk. It’s likely that few names from this group will also audition for the returner role previously held by Davis. Smith is the cousin of former Lion Stefan Logan, and says he’s a little tougher and has more top end speed than his relative who was nicknamed “Joystick”. If that proves to be true, the Lions may have found a gem.
Replacing Manny and opportunities to shine:
The Lions didn’t have a lot of turnover this off-season, but one big loss could be felt at receiver with the loss of Emmanuel Arceneaux to the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. Paris Jackson will miss training camp on the training camp injured list as he is still recovering from a knee injury. Of the players returning from last season, look for Shawn Gore and Steven Black to have an impact coming out of camp. Gore and Black are slotted in as the team’s two starting slot backs heading into camp and both have the talent to hold onto those jobs. Gore never really got a chance to show his talents after arriving from the Green Bay Packers part way through the season, seeing most of his time on special teams. But Black became a dependable option for the team down the stretch and will look to entrench himself even more in the starting lineup.
Geroy Simon of course is the cagey and wise veteran who keeps on ticking. He needs 4 TDs to surpass Willie Fleming (87) for first on the Lions’ all-time list. He needs six TDs to reach 90 for his Lions career and 34 receptions to hit the 800 mark to add to his club record total. Simon is also closing in on Milt Stegall for the league’s all time receiving yards record, needing 1,432 yards to pass one of the CFL’s all-time greats and be in sole possession of the record.
Wide receiver is where things could get interesting. Second year player Nick Moore who didn’t see the field and 2010 draft pick Akeem Foster enter camp as tops on the depth chart, but the Lions have brought in some talented players to compete, hoping to find the next diamond in the rough to replace Arceneaux. The Lions have no fewer than 10 wider receivers to evaluate at camp, and early reports from rookie camp suggest that there are some good options to choose from. 2011 draft pick Marco Iannuzzi (Harvard) will look to impress. He likely won’t start right away but may also get a look as an option for kick returner. Other players vying for jobs will be Dobson Collins, Marc Ison, Kierrie Johnson, Calvin Simon, Jared Perry, William Osbourne and Brandon Thompkins.
Strength at Linebacker:
Despite the Lions troubles last year the defense was pretty solid last season and help the team in a lot of games while the offense struggled. The strength of the defence is definitely the linebacking core and the Lions are looking to make it the focal point of their defence this season. Last year’s rookie of the year Solomon Elimimian will be the centrepiece. It sounds as if the Lions will be employing a four linebacker set at least to start the year. If that is the case look for Adam Leonard, Anton McKenzie and nickleback Korey Banks join Elimimian. Joe Henderson returns for another year and will likely get rotated in and there is James Yurichuk who continues to improve and may play a bigger role this year. Joash Gesse, Adam Bighill and Tyrell Graham will also compete, but don’t excpect many surprises when camp breaks.
In search for the next Wake:
The Lions were extremely lucky to enjoy the talents of Cam Wake for two seasons. But since the monster that terrorized CFL quarterbacks left to star in the NFL, they have yet to find a replacement for the rush end position. Brent Johnson returns for another season and the Lions were happy with how fresh he was kept by rotating in and out during games. That’s how he’ll start the year with Aaron Hunt moving to defensive end and the newly acquired Eric Taylor starting at defensive tackle. Keron Williams will start on the other end and look to start the season healthy. Khalif Mitchell who arrived from the NFL last season with a bang but tailed off down the stretch could also see a lot of reps and should have a better handle on the CFL game. Newcomers Keyon Brown, James Bryant and draft pick Chris Hodgson will also look to impress.
Secondary remains strong:
One are where the Lions have always been solid over the last few years is the secondary and 2011 should find them solid again. Coach Mark Washington has a lot of talent to work with led by veterans Dante Marsh, Ryan Phillips, J.R. Larose and Davis Sanchez. Stanley Franks had a strong season in 2011 and he returns along with David Hyland who’s hard hitting take no prisoners style excited fans in the games he played in. The Lions would like to see special teams demon Jason Arakgi play a bigger role and he’ll enter camp as the backup to LaRose at safety. LaRose is coming off a another serious leg injury and Arakgi should be ready to emerge soon. Second year players Anthony Reddick and Hamid Mamoudi both return and newcomers Marquez Hall and Micheal Carter and Travis Williams look to get noticed and crack a solid group.
Looking for that special player:
The Lions probably didn’t count on having to replace Yonus Davis in 2011. Davis’ legal problems left them with no choice however and the search for a new returner at camp will be one to watch. Various receivers and backs will be given opportunities and Buono will hope he makes the right choice. Last season he handed the job to Robert Jordan (who was also implicated in the Davis situation) who was ineffective before finding lightning in a bottle with Davis. The return game won the Lions a few games last year and replacing that component will be important to the teams overall success.
The kicking game will once again fall in the hand of the capable Paul McCallum who seems to be defying his age. McCallum had won of his best season kicking field goals last season and can still punt accurately and efficiently. Buono chose to keep McCallum over the up and coming Sean Whyte who was dealt to Montreal at the draft. The Lions drafted Hugh O’Neil out of the University of Alberta who be McCallum’s backup and who many feel was the best kicker in the draft.
The Lions return coverage was solid last season and many of the same cast will be back. Arakgi, Yurichuk and Lumbala are lethal down field tacklers and they’ll be the leaders on cover teams.
Who will make a name for themselves?
Every year there is a player at camp who forces the coaches to make a difficult decision and this year will likely be no exception. If it is, the football staff haven’t done their job in finding players to improve the team. Wally Buono is also known for cutting a veteran or two every year. Last season he had a very young team and his off-season to date has shown he wants to maintain continuity in 2011 and let the tam grow. But that won’t mean the plans cant change if a player gives him no choice. The biggest surprise may come at receiver, or perhaps running back. Paris Jackson’s knee is a real concern and a strong showing in camp by another player like Shawn Gore may leave Buono with a tough decision. There are also options waiting in the wings with Kenton Keith and Kamau Petersen.
Other key notes:
Fan Fest will be held June 12th: Gates open at: 1:30 pm
Autograph session: 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm
Practice: 2:30 pm to 4:00 pm
The team will hold a night practice on Monday June 20th.
Fans heading to Kamloops should note that on June 5th, 8th, 10th and 19th, the club will have very limited on-field activities during the morning practice session.
So there you have it, hopefully we’ve shed some light on some of the battles to watch for at camp. If you’re heading up to Kamloops or live in the area enjoy the practices and the experience of CFL training camp! Let’s hope all the hard work during the next few weeks results in a great year for the Lions!