There was probably some solace for Mark Washington at one point during the winter in that if he had to endure arguably the most difficult off-season of his coaching tenure with the BC Lions he at least got to spend part of it in paradise.
Still, it was a grim reality the Lions’ defensive coordinator had to face upon returning from vacation this year. When he left for a visit to the Bahamas, he had the CFL’s top-ranked yardage unit last year. Work can wait when you are staring out at the Caribbean but upon settling in after a few nights of tranquility, Washington again realized he is facing a mammoth rebuild.
Suffice it to suggest that the Lions mini-camp at their Surrey practice facility (above) did not start with much back-slapping and reacquainting high-fives, because their success this season will be predicated on replacing the mass exodus, and they have no choice but to project some starting candidates from the group assembled this week.
No fewer than six regulars who started last season’s West Division final debacle in Calgary must be replaced in the next two months, with a minimum of seven defensive roster spots overall available.
Coach/GM Wally Buono rolled the dice on the contract which allowed Adam Bighill to escape and try to crack the roster of the New Orleans Saints which constitutes the biggest hole. BC must also replace Ryan Phillips, Brandon Stewart and Anthony Gaitor in the secondary, a Canadian rotational starter to replace Jabar Westerman plus NFL hopeful Alex Bazzie on the defensive front. Backup linebacker Bo Lokombo was no slouch either, even if the Lions never really gave him a chance to be a starter.
By contrast, down time for offensive coordinator Khari Jones turned out to be an actual holiday. Jones got receiver Chris Williams this winter in free agency and only has to replace tackle Jovan Olafioye, who was dealt by Buono to Montreal when the coach/GM of the CFL couldn’t reconcile his contract value.
Washington easily has the toughest challenge of his coaching career, and has had to decide whether the time has come for major alterations to his defensive structure with so many changes required.
“When you start losing pieces you got to take a step back and ask if you have the same type of players coming in,” he said. “You want to bring in the same type of players but that’s not always going to happen. If you have different types of players you have to revise your scheme.”
There won’t be significant change for the likes of the league’s top defensive player last year, linebacker Solomon Elimimian, but there’s a chance to be flexible if you’re the Lions in almost every other defensive position outside safety.
That explained why the Lions had no fewer than eight defensive linemen on the field for starters at minicamp. Some years in the past they didn’t bring in a single pass rusher at this time of year. Three candidates were working out to replace Bighill. That position hasn’t required attention for six seasons.
It’s a daunting challenge for a team that has been touted highly because of Williams and the return of 5,000-yard quarterback Jon Jennings, which is why Buono had no fewer than 38 players on the field, easily the most in Lions mini-camp history. Facing a substantial challenge in a marketplace where the hiring of Travis Green by the Canucks Wednesday left them all but ignored, there were few thoughts of pina coladas and glistening beaches around the Lions as they got started in earnest.
LIONS TALES: The off-season wasn’t kind to Lions receivers coach Marcel Bellefeuille, who was on the field in a walking cast and a crutch as a result of an Achilles tear while playing soccer during the off-season. Jones did the same thing prior to mini-camp last year…B.C. has 79 players on its roster overall, including veterans, at present, meaning four cuts will be required before the May 1 deadline… Jones said Williams was ahead of schedule following off-season knee surgery that made him expendable in Ottawa, but the Lions will limit his reps nonetheless when training camp begins May 28 in Kamloops.