February 22, 2018

Running Back Talk | Lionello’s Group Has Plenty To Build on

A minor dusting of snow in the lower mainland has certainly produced the smell of football season the air. And although the calendar only reads mid-February, the BC Lions coaching staff has already ramped its preparation for the April 25th-27th OTA in Surrey and training camp in Kamloops, which begins on May 19th.

Mike Lionello sits at his computer and carefully dissects a loss to the Edmonton Eskimos last October at BC Place. It is a necessary evil of the offseason grind. After all, the Lions are slated to play the green and gold three more times in 2018, including a visit to the Alberta capital in their second game of the season on June 29th.

“You want to start scouting the teams you’ll be playing early in the season and also do a little self-scout,” explained the Lions’ running backs coach.

“What did we do well last year and what didn’t we do well last year. The same with other teams in our league and in the NFL. How did they have success?”


Lionello’s background as quality control coach- a primary role in his first two seasons with the club- has certainly prepared him for the long, sometimes slightly tedious offseason process.

A big part of the winter film study also includes evaluating the analytical breakdown of your own team. Digging deep into some of those key numbers will help the offensive coaching staff decide what plays they still want to incorporate into their scheme and others they can most likely scrap from the playbook altogether.

“You want to look at efficiency. A big column we use is gain/loss, “ said the former SFU clan coach.

“What did a certain play gain? Over the course of a season, what are the average yards gained per each play we called? If you look at a run play that gained an average of fewer than five yards, your question becomes do we continue to use that play? For any run play, you want to gain more than five yards on first down. If that play is gaining less than five yards, do we still need to run it? On the other side, if there is a play that is gaining an average of eight or nine yards, we have to figure out how we can run it more or disguise it. Those are the biggest things.”

With Jeremiah Johnson carrying the backfield load in all but one game, Lionello’s unit was still in goods hands in 2017, one year after they led the CFL in rushing yards.

Lionello pointed out his backs also combined for over 1,000 receiving yards, 542 coming from Johnson. But there is more to the position than racking up important yardage on the ground and celebrating in the end zone. As the film shows, they did a solid job in other key areas.

“As a group, we were solid in our protection and we hung on to the football. Our fumbles went from eight in 2016 to three last season. That’s more than a 50 percent drop, which is very good,” explained Lionello.

“Protecting the quarterback and protecting the football are two important things.”

Johnson will once again enter training camp as the featured back with newcomer Brandon Rutley expected to provide some key training camp depth and perhaps serve as a nice backup option should Johnson get banged up or need the odd rest.

As any coach will tell you, a guy of Johnson’s calibre makes them better at what they do. The former Oregon Ducks’ standout is also just as valuable off the field.

“He is the consummate professional, a great leader and a great teammate,” stated Lionello.

“Last year when he had to sit out that Winnipeg game he was out there coaching the heck out of Tyler Davis, who hadn’t really played much running back before. Jeremiah helps out with everything. If I am running the scout team, he is out there coaching them up. It was terrific to see and it is great that he is here for at least another year. It is also great to have Rolly Lumbala signed for two more years. Like Jeremiah, he is almost like having another coach out there”

With their playoff hopes dashed going into that October 28th tilt in Winnipeg, they elected to give Chris Rainey a shot at tailback with Davis taking over Rainey’s spot in the kick return game. Rainey dazzled his teammates with 195 all-purpose and a pair of touchdown receptions in the 36-27 victory.

“That’s all he wants is more touches,” said the coach of Rainey.

“The nice thing is Chris always wants to help the team win. That’s what we love about him. He had that tremendous game in Winnipeg and deserves all the accolades that came with it. He was a top performer of the week and that was well deserved. You look at guys in the NFL like Christian McCaffery and Alvin Kamara: how can you get them the ball more and maximize their touches? Chris needs more touches.”

Lionello’s path to his current role is rather unorthodox, but a lot more common in the newer age of football. His only playing experience was as a senior at South Delta Secondary, where he helped the Sun Devils reach the BC Double A championship game.

After completing his degree in Economics at the University of Victoria, he joined Dave Johnson’s coaching staff at Simon Fraser and filled a variety of roles, including video coordinator and running backs coach, in an attempt to pursue a career coaching pros. The Lions hired him for the quality control duties in 2016 where he played a big part in compiling the statistical analysis for all of the important game preparation.

The Tsawwassen native admits it has been a challenging, but super rewarding ride.

“It absolutely has, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I’ve been working with great people too, from Wally down to Mark (Washington), Khari (Jones), Dan Dorazio and now Jarious Jackson on the offensive staff. It’s been spectacular. No complaints.”

Once the snow disappears, it will be nothing but running toward the common goal.

Matt Baker: mbaker@bclions.com