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In the case of this year’s edition of the BC Lions, familiar faces can fool you.
The veteran core remains intact and, for now, only two newcomers – one on offence and one on defence – have won jobs as starters. But the Lions have made several significant changes since they placed first in the West Division with a 13-5 mark and were upset in the 2012 West Final by the Calgary Stampeders.
“There’s a lot of different kinds of mixes, and it’s an entirely different team,” said coach Mike Benevides.
Most of the changes involve holdovers assuming new and expanded roles, including new positions, as Benevides and general manager Wally Buono follow through on their plan to make the team younger and stronger.
“Right now, if I have to look at it and be honest, we have greater depth,” said Benevides. “There’s more depth than we know about.”
DeMarco assumes Mike Reilly’s former backup role following his trade to Edmonton as a result of Lulay’s new contract.
The Lions have also brought in former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Joey Elliott as quarterbacking insurance.
In other prominent offensive revisions, slotbacks Nick Moore and Courtney Taylor replace all-time leading CFL receiver Geroy Simon (traded to Saskatchewan) and Arland Bruce (released and signed by Montreal). Wide receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux returns after two years in the NFL, giving the Lions a deep threat that they have lacked.
Other changes on offence are less eye-catching but still significant because they involve an offensive line that was decimated by injuries at the guard position last season. Rookie Kirby Fabien, previously a tackle who was chosen seventh overall in the 2012 CFL draft but returned to the University of Calgary for another season, will start at right guard while Patrick Kabongo, 33, gets the call at left guard.
Matt Norman, a second-year guard who is being groomed as Angus Reid‘s eventual replacement at centre, could start the season in the middle as the veteran recuperates from a back injury. Norman is slated to move to the starting left guard spot once Reid is healthy.
On defence, things are likely to be less animated following eccentric lineman Khalif Mitchell’s trade to the Toronto Argonauts.
Key defensive-line changes include Keron Williams moving inside to Mitchell’s former tackle spot from defensive end, and second-year pro Jabar Westerman, the West Division’s top rookie in 2012, getting a starting job at end.
The linebacking corps has also experienced change as 2012 CFL all-star Adam Bighill moves to the outside from the middle, where he ranked second in the league in tackles last season with 104. The move accommodates Solomon Elimimian, who returned from the NFL in the second half of 2012 and is more comfortable playing middle linebacker.
Bighill is well versed in the outside spot, having played there as a rookie in 2011.
The secondary has also undergone a shuffle as Korey Banks moves to nickelback, acting as a hybrid linebacker-defensive back from halfback, and J.R. LaRose takes over at safety. Cord Parks becomes the other newcomer to grab a starting spot at cornerback.
In arguably the most dramatic change, veteran kicker Paul McCallum will focus on field goals in his 21st CFL season. Hugh O’Neill, who spent the past two seasons serving as his understudy, is expected to handle kick-offs and possibly punts.
“Certainly, there is tremendous value to having two (kickers) on the roster – for depth, for leg strength on kick-offs, for accuracy from (McCallum’s) placekicking, and punting,” said Benevides.
In another special teams adjustment, newcomer Korey Williams could feature prominently as a punt and kick-off returner. The Lions assigned him to active duty to prevent another club from plucking him off the practice roster.
“We’re a good, solid team,” said McCallum. “We’ve got a good core group of players. We work hard, are very talented, have lots of depth. So for me, if I have to say expectations as far as wins and losses, and expectations as far as going out and playing hard, we should be successful.”
The Lions will open the season Friday in Calgary, hoping for a chance at some revenge after last year’s West final loss. However, Benevides said the Lions have to put the bitterness of that setback behind them.
“Really, let’s make sure we learned some lessons,” he said. “But, really, we can’t live with that. This is a whole different team, a whole different year. The league is different.
“So, for me, the approach is: Let’s move on.”