June 14, 2017

Camp Breaks | One Goal Down

They survived the three weeks of two-a-days, endless meetings and meticulous film sessions. Now the quest is on for the 2017 edition of the BC Lions to write their own story. After a remarkable turnaround last season, which saw a five-win regular season improvement and appearance in the Western Division Final, anything less than a Grey Cup victory this time around will be considered a disappointment.

And that is just fine for the likes of Jonathon Jennings and Solomon Elimimian. As training camp in Kamloops wraps up on Tuesday, both leaders are confident they accomplished everything they set out for.

“I’m really proud of a lot of things we are doing,” explained Jennings.

“I think Khari Jones has initiated a great offence, and I am really excited about the way we’re blocking up front and how we’re knowing our assignments. Those guys up front are really doing a great job. Last year at this time we weren’t as far as we are now and that is really phenomenal for us. It’s going to be a fun year.”

You could feel the buzz from the first couple days of free agency back in February. The signing of speedster Chris Williams solidified this receiving corps as one of the best in the league. But perhaps the most encouraging sign is the fact many youngsters have made their case for a roster spot. That will prove to be very beneficial as Williams eases his way back into the fold after knee surgery last October in Ottawa.

“That’s very promising to see. Each year you need somebody to step up and have guys come in, earn a spot and help your team,” added the Lions’ starting pivot.

“Guys like Shaq (Johnson) have come in and done great things. Maurice (Morgan) and Tyler Davis have done a great job. There have been phenomenal plays made by all those guys. Danny Vandervoort has been out here making catches as well. You always need guys to fill the roles of others.”

Jennings is coming off a season where he surpassed the 5,000-yard passing mark, something only previously accomplished by Doug Flutie, Dave Dickenson and Casey Printers with this franchise. Is the pride of Westerville, Ohio satisfied yet? Not even close.

“If you’re not growing, you’re getting worse. I have to get better each and every day and If I don’t I won’t be able to carry this team to greater heights. We all need to improve, we all need to get better.”

The mood is equally exciting on defence. Elimimian leaves camp confident they can fill the void left by Adam Bighill and Alex Bazzie, just to name a couple.

“The biggest positives are having these young guys integrated into the system, having them understand what is expected as a defence and what it takes to win,” said the two-time CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

Micah Awe and Tony Burnett will both get plenty of looks alongside Elimimian on Friday against Saskatchewan. One thing is clear: both Elimimian and the coaches are excited about the possibilities on their depth chart.

“Those guys are solid people and solid players, they have a lot of upside to them,” said Elimimian.

“Every day they got better, they’re eager to learn and the biggest thing about them is they are athletic and smart kids.”

One day at a time may sound cliché, but it’s the approach Elimimian and the club will take in their quest for a seventh Grey Cup in franchise history.

“Big time. There is a lot of good teams in the CFL and to win the big one you have to take it one practice at a time and understand it’s a long season and Grey Cups aren’t won in November, they are won by coming out here every day and pushing one another.”

 The Godfather Speaks

 CFL all-time wins leader Wally Buono was also very satisfied when handing out his training camp report card. We asked him about two key storylines after the final padded practice on Tuesday morning.

 On cutting Cameron Ontko, their leading special teams tackler in 2016: “Things change. The player was brought in last year for special teams and now we’re looking at linebackers to do different things. We believe our team will be bigger, more physical and the linebacker has to also fit into the schemes that we’re doing. Unfortunately that meant we didn’t want to have Cameron playing Friday night with no opportunity to make the team. I talked to him about that yesterday and today (Tuesday) we made the decision.”

Of note, the club announced three more cuts Tuesday morning: WR Corey Jones, DB Cleveland Wallace and DL Marquis Jackson are all heading home. Jones would appear to be the surprise of that bunch after proving to be one of the early standouts and was viewed as a possible stop gab at wide receiver until Williams gets back. It serves as a reminder that if you don’t keep that momentum going or stand out in the first pre-season game, all bets are off.

 

 On having linemen battle each other inside a circle of teammates: “Part of it is having fun. We have kind of instituted a consequence period and there has been a lot of bantering back and forth between (Mic’hael) Brooks and Jonathon Jennings so we thought we’d create a challenge of gladiators and have the troops circle up to see which gladiators were going to be victorious, and obviously the offensive line gladiators were. Both sides are good groups.”

Bake’s Takes: Three Camp Storylines

Intensity: it was apparent from day one. Continuing with that gladiator theme, the amount of dust ups and minor scuffles greatly outnumbered those from last year. It speaks to how hungry they really are to get to the top of the mountain. The epicentre of these battles has been the strong play of both the offensive and defensive line. You’d be hard pressed to find another year where they had this much depth at those spots. Egos will be set aside from the get go.

Revamped secondary: but re-jigging the defensive back ratio has proven to be a real smart tactic so far. Both Steven Clarke and Tevin McDonald have showed well at safety. The possibility of starting a Canadian at field corner has done wonders for Anthony Thompson. He, Keynan Parker and Matt Bucknor are all up to the task and can play multiple positions. Credit to Buono for addressing that need in free agency and allowing himself the flexibility of moving out other guys.

Turning the page: At the end of the day, guys like Bighill took the jobs of other people when they first exploded on the scene. It has been pretty impressive to watch the likes of Awe, Burnett and Dyshawn Davis battle at that outside linebacker spot. The same can be said in that rotation at defensive end with DeQuin Evans, Josh Shirley and company. New faces always make this league intriguing and its a testament to Ryan Rigmaiden and his US Scouts for finding these bodies. Buckle up.

Matt Baker: mbaker@bclions.com