Lions have still made a number of significant changes as they look to repeat
VANCOUVER - According to an Angus Reid survey, the B.C. Lions are doing "the right thing" as the 2012 CFL season approaches.
No, this survey wasn't conducted by the well-known pollster. It's an ongoing study by the Lions' insightful starting centre, also named Angus Reid, who has reached his findings simply by looking around the locker-room.
With most players working on one- or two-year contracts, it is increasingly difficult for CFL clubs to keep their rosters together over the longterm, he contended. But the Lions are doing the right thing by being an exception to the rule.
"We're keeping our players intact," he said. "We reward our players new contracts. We keep our fans knowing who are stars are year in and year out."
He based the comment on recent campaigns, but it is especially true this season. Although Mike Benevides has replaced Wally Buono as head coach, the Lions have few new faces as they prepare for Friday's Grey Cup rematch against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at B.C. Place Stadium.
"Our team might have a new coach, but the B.C. Lions are still the B.C. Lions that you know," said Reid. "Yeah, Benny brings his own signature to it But the reality is, almost every assistant coach is the same.
"Almost all the players are the same. Our support staff is the same."
All of B.C.'s offensive starters have returned and most defensive and special-teams players are back. But the Lions have still made some significant changes.
Mike Reilly, who only took six snaps last year, has moved up to being the backup behind starter Travis Lulay, the CFL's most outstanding player last season. The Lions also have a new No. 3 quarterback in rookie Thomas DeMarco.
On the defensive line, rookie Jabar Westerman, the second pick in this year's CFL draft, will play a prominent role as he rotates among six players, replacing retired star defensive end Brent Johnson. Meanwhile, sophomore Adam Bighill is the starting middle linebacker after winning the spot from four-year veteran James Yurichuk in training camp. Bighill replaces Solomon Elimimian, a standout in two seasons who departed for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. Yurichuk, a former weak-side linebacker, is also expected to see extensive action as a variety of defensive schemes are deployed.
In the secondary, former Toronto Argonauts Lin-J Shell and Byron Parker, who both signed as free agents, join a dominant veteran crew.
Such tinkering will always occur, said Reid. But the Lions have fixed the problems since their roster was rebuilt in 2010 and 2011.
"We have the chance to be the best Lions team I've ever been a part of," said Reid, who is entering his 12th season. "The talent level is fine, the continuity is great, the characters on this team are good, the personalities are good, the blending is good, we don't have cancers. … Everybody's here with the right purpose and intention, and that's very rare to find in professional sports."
Defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell, who opted to return to B.C. after initially agreeing to terms with the NFL's Miami Dolphins, said the Lions are a comfortable and confident team, especially up front on defence.
"They say that comfort is complacency … but you need to have some type of comfort," said Mitchell. "You're going against a group of people who want to come out and take your head off.
"They're gunning for you, so you want to be comfortable that you have guys that are watching your back."
Despite the return of all starters on offence, the Lions will have some changes on the line in the early going due to knee injuries suffered by guards Jon Hameister-Ries, Dean Valli and Jesse Newman in training camp. Former Edmonton Eskimo Patrick Kabongo, brought in during camp as a free agent as a result of the injuries, is expected to start the season at one guard spot. Matt Norman, a rookie from Western Ontario, is a strong candidate to start at the other one.
Hameister-Ries returned to practice this week after undergoing arthroscopic surgery two weeks ago and hopes to play Friday. B.C.'s first priority is to build on a 2-0 exhibition record and avoid a repeat of last season's 0-5 start and a 1-7 mark experienced at the outset of the 2010 season.
"It was a very productive pre-season," said Lulay, who capped his season by being named the Grey Cup game MVP. "I thought we had a very productive camp. The tempo was fast. We did OK with injuries.
"We had a couple O-linemen nicked up, but we came out OK and hopefully, those guys will back in the next couple weeks here. So that was a very fortunate thing. We did establish a little bit of a rhythm, a little bit of an identity of who we want to be in the pre-season. Now, we've just gotta carry it into the real thing."
Slotback Geroy Simon, who needs 67 yards to become the CFL's all-time leader in receiving yards, said the Lions are confident but still humble. They hope to learn from the 2007 season when they failed to repeat as Grey Cup champions.
"It's a little different this year," said Simon. "We know what it feels like to win a Grey Cup and come up to the next season and having success but not winning.
"We understand what happened in that next season, so I think we've prepared to go against that and we have a different attitude than the '07 team did."
Benevides' attitude is a form of tough love as he does all he can to support his players, such as the creation of a mentoring program for all of his troops, with the ultimate goal of winning. Despite last season's championship, he said, the Lions have to improve in all areas.
"We're certainly not where we want to be right now," said Benevides. "We're at Week 1, so we have a lot of work to get done."