So, did you blink and miss training camp?
That might edge a bit towards the category of fake news but after wrapping up their final practice session Saturday night the B.C. Lions had already finished the heavy lifting in Kamloops and will gear down for their pre-season opener against the Calgary Stampeders Tuesday.
One thing about the CFL, it’s better to make a good first impression because there’s often no time to make a second.
After a 12-6 finish last year Wally Buono could have just tinkered with his lineup but that’s not how the Lions coach/GM rolls. He had 86 players in camp and will need to fill at least 14 roster spots with new faces, which poses more than a fair share of questions for an organization that would benefit greatly from playing host to the West Division final this year.
Buono appears to have some decent new faces, but the first week has largely been uneventful, highlighted by the fact the biggest news item coming out of camp were the daily appearances of Pro Football Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff, who has a summer cottage in the area and took up the Lions offer to visit. Here’s five answers required by the Lions prior to the season opener June 24 against Edmonton at B.C. Place Stadium:
Can Jon Jennings improve?
Ask that of any player and you know the answer will be in the affirmative of course, but really, what do you expect from someone who threw for 5,226 yards and became only the fourth player in franchise history to surpass the 5,000-yard mark? A repeat would be just fine, thanks.
There are other aspects surrounding the development of a quarterback that have no statistical component where improvement can be achieved, and the Lions say they are seeing a difference in the maturation of the 24-year-old in camp.
Jennings’ presence in meetings and inside the huddle is also growing, teammates say.
“The biggest thing is that he has a history now. Before you do it you think you can do it but until you go through a season that experience makes him better,” offensive coordinator Khari Jones said.
“He’s pretty much the same guy but even in meetings last year he was speaking up. As our relationship grows he’s comfortable about telling me what he likes and doesn’t like.”
What Jennings doesn’t like about his game last season were his 15 interceptions. A repeat won’t look good if he decides to exercise the option-year NFL window after the upcoming season. That’s a number worth noting this year. Another: 20.1. That’s the average rushing yards per game last season, also a stat which Jennings can raise to the Lions’ benefit this year.
Can Adam Bighill be replaced?
The obvious response is not in the affirmative, because Bighill gave the Lions six seasons of unparalleled play that can’t be replicated simply by calling on the next player on the depth chart. They had an in-house succession plan, but Bo Lokombo also left for the NFL.
Six months later the position remains unfilled and it is unclear if the Lions believe a solution is in camp or whether they might choose to go retro and sign someone familiar with Mark Washington’s defence like Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who has now been with three CFL clubs and is currently a free agent.
A suggestion to the contrary lies in the taller body types assembled as replacement candidates, though almost everyone would be bigger than the 5’10” Bighill. Cameron Ontko is a taller version of the Lions former Will linebacker and gets most of the first-team reps. However, free agent signing Tony Burnett makes a lot of the plays at the position. Practice roster returnee Dyshawn Davis is still in the mix. Micah Awe, who stood out in mini-camp, is listed as a backup candidate behind Solomon Elimimian, which makes him practice roster material.
B.C. isn’t likely going to wait for another team to make cuts, or likely sign Hoffman-Ellis for that matter, so it’s more likely the successor is going to come from this group. But it’s still the biggest individual question mark with the Lions at this stage of camp, right up there with whether they can improve their pass rush with only four up front.
Was trading a Canadian starter a mistake?
On form, it isn’t even a question that deserves an answer, as conventional wisdom when it comes to the ratio has always suggested that only getting major value in return would prompt such a move.
B.C. traded safety Mike Edem weeks before training camp to Saskatchewan for a conditional late-round draft pick. The fact Edem hasn’t always had starting reps in Saskatoon so far doesn’t validate what certainly looks like a move which greatly reduces the Lions’ ratio-building options.
Thing is, however, though the Lions still figure to have only one Canadian starter on defence, with Keynan Parker and Matt Bucknor deciding who’ll play wide-side cornerback, they still appear to have a couple of options this year in the event of injury.
Second-year defensive back Anthony Thompson is making the most of Edem’s absence and has clearly progressed. Imports Steven Clarke and newcomer Tevin McDonald, brother of Miami safety T.J. McDonald, are the primary combatants to replace Edem, but Thompson will make the roster again.
No way the Lions could have known it upon taking him seventh overall in the Canadian college draft last month, but University of Montreal tackle Junior Luke has held his own during the first week in the absence of starter Bryant Turner and his equally ailing import backup candidate, Frank Alexander.
Though he went in the seventh round two years ago, Maxx Forde also continues to hold his own and with Luke could one day become a Canadian ratio pairing, with David Menard also in the mix. Like the exit of Jabar Westerman in free agency the Lions don’t appear as if the loss of both one-time Canadian starters on defence are damaging.
Was Chris Williams oversold?
There was significant hype when the Lions made arguably their biggest free-agent signing in years in February, but most of it was not done by the club, which is why seeing him on the sidelines for the first week of camp was of little concern. Buono, in fact, is the one holding the reins on Williams.
Here’s the deal: Williams (above) only underwent ACL surgery Oct. 28 and given the recovery time from such a procedure is often in the nine-month range, shouldn’t even be expected to play a significant role for the Lions until mid-summer. In Hamilton, the Ticats lost receiver Andy Fantuz to the same injury on the same day. Fantuz isn’t even close to returning to the Hamilton roster, signed to a front-office contract in the interim. The fact Williams was allowed to participate in practice on a limited basis should be considered a positive development.
It’s also worth noting that Williams is not part of the Lions’ initial marketing, which is a pretty good suggestion the club knew the receiver wasn’t going to be around for awhile. Media talkers made too much of Williams’ arrival early, not the Lions.
Can the Lions make Chris Rainey great again on offence?
One of the head-scratching reflections from the 2016 season is that despite his brilliance on special teams that led to a league all-star selection, Chris Rainey had fewer yards from scrimmage than Shawn Gore.
Recall that the biggest reason was the worry on the part of the Lions over wearing down Rainey. The net effect on the field was that when he did play on offence, teams began keying on Rainey knowing he was likely to get the ball.
That’s something the Lions appear to be working on in training camp. Though the bigger mission is replacing Williams in the short-term, the trick is to find another import with similar skill sets to Rainey that will allow Khari Jones to get confortable with the notion he can get production out of the backfield in the event of injury.
B.C. didn’t sign a large number of import running back candidates for training camp even after making the decision to nuke the platoon tailback idea last year and electing to give the touches to Jeremiah Johnson and not the departed Anthony Allen.
Practice roster returnee Josh Harris (Wake Forest) is lining up as Allen’s replacement at training camp but the Lions are intrigued by newcomer Tyler Davis (Missouri Valley). If one of them can deliver during the exhibition season, B.C. might be more inclined to turn Rainey loose on offence, especially when Williams is ready to take his short-side wideout spot that almost certainly seems will go to rookie Corey Jones (Toledo) until he’s ready.