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June 7, 2017

Breaking Down The Receivers

We won’t dub them “The Greatest Show On Canadian Turf” just yet. That would be disrespectful to the old St. Louis Rams squad with Isaac Bruce, Torey Holt and company. But when you factor in the possibilities for the 2017 BC Lions receivers, it is hard to not at least get a little giddy.

Marcel Bellefeuille has been at this coaching thing for a long time. He was a Vanier Cup winning head coach with the Ottawa GeeGees, and since elevating to the CFL he has held offensive co-ordinator posts in Saskatchewan, Montreal and Winnipeg. In between he was the head coach in Hamilton.

So you wouldn’t think the 51-year old would still be star struck when he stepped on the field. But then you have to factor in his 2017 crop of receivers in Kamloops.

“The combination of ability and veterans makes this the best group I have ever been around,” said the wide receivers coach over lunch on Wednesday.

It’s a pretty bold statement when you consider some of the other players Bellefeuille has worked with at his various stops in the league.

“I had a really good group in Montreal with (Ben) Cahoon, (Kerry) Watkins, (Dave) Stala and all of those guys,” added Bellefeuille.

“We also had a pretty solid group in Hamilton, although they were younger.”

That group in Steeltown included none other than Chris Williams, whom the Lions landed as one of the league’s most high profile free agent signings in February.

Flash back to a conversation I had with Wally Buono in his office the week before they did the deal. The GM/head coach said something along the lines of “Our receivers are going to be pretty good.” He then paused and flashed a smile.

At the time, I thought nothing of it. Bryan Burnham was about to return after his tour of NFL tryouts. Manny Arceneaux was back as leader of the group. Nick Moore was signed, sealed and delivered after successful rehab from knee surgery last July.

Then there was the upcoming CFL Draft; which featured an elite prospect named Danny Vandervoort. Maybe he would be a possibility for the Lions at with the third overall pick. Knowing what I know now, perhaps Buono had a pretty good idea they could land the speedster Williams to the group.

Bellefeuille couldn’t be happier to be re-united with the New Mexico State product.

“He brings speed to our receiving corps and he has become a very good route runner over the course of his career,” explained Bellefeuille.

“He brings another different dynamic with the ball in his hands after the catch. So he makes our group more dynamic and more diverse.”

The plan with Williams will be to take it slow after his 2016 campaign in Ottawa ended in October due to a torn ACL. He has yet to take part in full contact drills, but that dynamic Bellefeuille speaks of will be intriguing to see first hand.

Like every other year, 2016 brought about some surprise. When Moore suffered his injury in Saskatchewan it allowed Burnham to step in and have a career year with 79 catches and 1,392 yards. The expectation will be for him to pick up right where he left off.

“I’m very anxious to see what he can do last year in terms of fine tuning the details,” said Bellefeuille.

As far as the Canadian contingent goes, Marco Iannuzzi is coming off probably his most productive year to date, while Stephen Adekolu made some strides of his own. Second year man Shaq Johnson stood out in Tuesday’s pre-season loss at Calgary, hauling in four straight catches to set up a field goal before halftime. That is impressive when you consider Johnson has missed a good chunk of training camp after tweaking a hamstring early on.

“It was important for him to get back on the field and continue to compete with the rest of the guys,” added Bellefeuille.

“I was happy he was able to get in there, play through it and make some plays. It showed on tape as well.”

A solid mixture of youngsters to go along with the quality vets is certainly the winning recipe Bellefeuille and the coaches have been craving.

“Camp has been solid. It’s a good group with lots of depth and learning.”

Breaking Down The Receivers

 Returnees

Emmanuel Arceneaux, Stephen Adekolu, Brett Blaszko, Bryan Burnham, Marco Iannuzzi, Shaq Johnson, Nick Moore

Newcomers and where they came from

 Tyler Davis- the former German League standout has split duty with the running backs and receivers in camp. Davis played defensive back in college so his versatility may come in handy when it comes to trimming down the roster. He has also been used as a kick returner.

R.J. Harris– appeared in three pre-season contests with the New Orleans Saints in 2016, hauling in five catches for 40 yards. He was impressive in the loss at Calgary and scored the Lions’ second touchdown of the night on a 40-yard catch and run.

Mitch Hillis– an eight round draft pick last month, the University of Saskatchewan product has impressed so far in Kamloops. He earned a U Sports first-team all Canadian honour last year after catching 66 passes for 1,052 yards.

Montario Hunter– attended Seattle Seahawks training camp and appeared in three pre-season contests last year after brief stints with the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers. The North Carolina native split his college career between Elon University and Elizabeth City State.

Corey Jones– one of the more productive rookies at this year’s camp. Jones had a stellar career at the University of Toledo, racking up 2,236 yards and 15 touchdown receptions in 48 games. He could be a factor at the ‘X’ receiver spot if Williams can’t suit up right away.

Deon Long– After a well publicized release from the Los Angeles Rams; it was documented on HBO Hard Knocks, Long (below left) landed on the Lions’ practice squad as part of last year’s NFL expansion period. The Washington, DC native also had practice roster stints with the Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles.

Douglas McNeil– also a late addition to last year’s practice squad, McNeil was one of the top performers to start things off at Kamloops mini-camp. The product of Bowie State had brief NFL stints with the Seahawks and Denver Broncos.

Maurice Morgan– has become more comfortable with the offence after his college career at NC State. With the Wolfpack, Morgan excelled on special teams and was used for receiver duty as well.

 Danny Vandervoort– the third overall pick from this year’s draft has come as advertised thus far. HIs great hands are likely one of his better traits. The man Buono says reminds him a lot of Jason Clermont had 2,572 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns at McMaster University.

Chris Williams– likely the biggest free agent signing by the club in the last decade, Williams is a four-time East Division all-star and won the CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player Award in 2012. In two games against the Lions last year he had a whopping 271 yards on ten catches.

 The Elder Statesman

Hard to believe it has been eight years since a wide-eyed Arceneaux reported to his first CFL camp at Abbotsford’s Columbia Bible College. He was originally given number 74; which indicates he wasn’t expected to be here long. His hard work and determination has made him one of the league’s brightest stars. His 13 touchdowns and 1,566 receiving yards were career highs last year. Number 84 also became the first Lions’ receiver since Geroy Simon (2006) to record over 100 receptions in a single season. The Manny Show is expected to get even higher ratings once camp breaks.

The Big Question

Just how great can Williams be with this group? The answer should seem obvious, but factor in some potential early rust to go along with the fact the pie might be shared equally to start. He will no doubt help Jonathon Jennings stretch the field with his capability of chewing up yards after the catch. Buckle up.

It Could Happen In 2017

Three Lions’ receivers could surpass 1,000 yards in a season. That hasn’t happened for the organization since 2005 when Simon, Clermont and Ryan Thelwell all did it. Shawn Gore almost joined Arceneaux and Burnham in the club last season, but went down with a concussion in October.

Quotable

“I’m looking forward to ramping it up here in the next couple of weeks and seeing where I can get to, and  definitely very anxious to see where I am at. I’m definitely not where I want to be, there’s still some work to do, but I am trending in the right direction. Light is at the end of the tunnel, man.”- Williams on his rehab and excitement level for suiting up.

 Matt Baker: mbaker@bclions.com