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April 7, 2017

April | Where The Ball Gets Rolling

The desk of Neil McEvoy is all the indication you need that football season is almost here. A neat and tidy guy 364 days a year, the Lions’ Director of Football Operations is currently arranging a pile of magnets containing names of the top 60 or so prospects for the May 7th CFL Draft.

Those will soon be placed, and subsequently re-arranged multiple times over the next month, on the club’s draft board. Yes, it is starting to feel real for McEvoy and the Lions brass, even if the cold and damp spring on the south coast of BC appears as though it never may end.

Mcevoy hero

The prime focus right now is the club’s annual slate of free agent camps across the United States. The fun begins Sunday with a stop in New Orleans- severe weather in parts of the United States caused Saturday’s Las Vegas workout to be cancelled- with the stop in Seattle on April 30th .In between is the club’s three-day mini-camp with first year players at the Surrey Facility April 26-28th.

McEvoy took a few minutes from magnet duty to talk about the exciting and important month ahead.

“It’s always cool to be at the start of this process,” said McEvoy. “The first one (free agent camp) is always the exciting one because we haven’t seen any of these players yet. It’s cool to get there with your scouts to meet and talk about the scouting process and start of the season.”

The free agent camps are essential for a couple reasons, the most important being the need to fill out the club’s roster for main camp in Kamloops starting at the end of May. Those who get the invite and are lucky enough to stick around could potentially find work on the practice roster for 2017.

“That’s what you’re looking for. Our main roster is pretty much solid,” added McEvoy.

“We probably still need two spots for every position for training camp. Obviously injuries are part of professional sports so we have to find the next group of guys that are able to compete at a high level to make sure you don’t miss a beat when you need them to step up.”

You can look down the current roster and find outstanding examples of players who first got to know the BC Lions at a US free agent camp. The list includes Jonathon Jennings, Travis Lulay, Bryan Burnham and Solomon Elimimian.

B.C. Lions' quarterback Jonathon Jennings, left, and Stephen Adekolu celebrate Jennings touchdown that proved to be the game winning score against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during second half western semifinal CFL football action in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday November 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Cameron Wake and Adam Bighill headline the group of former Leos discovered at these open tryouts. Not a bad free agent crop.

“It gives us opportunities and ideas of what might happen for the guys coming out,” added McEvoy. “At the end of the day, players have to be at a pro level to get an invitation to training camp or OTA. The reality is we have signed guys who are currently with us who have gone through this process in the past. We’ve been very fortunate to find players and build our football team around it.”

At the other end of the football operations offices, coaches are working hard to finalize plans for the end-of-month mini-camp; yet another important part of the process.

Mark Washington has to replace the likes of  Bighill and Alex Bazzie on his defence so he knows the OTA will be extra beneficial for him and his staff.

“That’s why you have this thing. You don’t want to bring guys to camp you haven’t seen or don’t know what they can do yet,” explained the defensive coordinator.

B.C. Lions' Adam Bighill, left, tackles Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris as he carries the ball during the first half of a CFL football game in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday October 14, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

“Here is an opportunity for us to see them not only at a one-day camp but over several days where they can absorb concepts. We have some holes to fill and those openings are ones guys should try and compete for.”

Last year’s OTA included standout defensive performances from the likes of Loucheiz Purifoy, Anthony Gaitor and Chandler Fenner. Purifoy emerged from main camp as starter at the nickel position.

Gaitor was cut due to injury only to be re-signed early in the regular season and wound up as a starter when the Lions lost three defensive backs to season-ending injuries. He parlayed his experience into a contract with the New Orleans Saints.

Fenner was also cut in camp then spent time working out with former Seattle Seahawks teammates Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor before getting the call to return to the den in August.

“We had our first look at all of them at the OTA,” added Washington.

“We also had defensive linemen like Darius Allen and Andrew Hudson last year. Those guys along with Puriofy, Gaitor and Fenner all had starting roles at some point.

B.C. Lions' Loucheiz Purifoy reacts after his team lost to the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL Western Final football game in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

The OTA serves as a significant milestone of the building of our organization and roster.”

Adding more intrigue to the puzzle is the fact they will invite around 40 players, about ten more than last year’s mini-camp and the most they have ever had for this event.

“That will allow us to facilitate what we’re trying to do,” said McEvoy. “I think it’s going to be a positive change because it will allow our coaches to start the process of training camp. These are all first year players with the exception of a couple of veterans.”

The final OTA roster is not 100 percent set in stone, but one of those veterans is expected to be linebacker Cameron Ontko who led the club in special teams tackles last season. In 2016, Hunter Steward was included as he was coming off his injury woes of the season before.

For now, the draft magnets will be on the back burner for a few days as McEvoy, Geroy Simon and the scouts embark on the Big Easy for the start of free agent camps. Although Vegas was put on the back burner, perhaps they will still find luck in the competitive card game that is player evaluation.

Matt Baker: mbaker@bclions.com