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It’s a return to the scene of the crime. Exactly 198 days after the 2016 came to an end in the Western Final, your BC Lions will be back at McMahon Stadium for their first taste of pre-season action. And although no revenge at stake, at least not until the club’s first meet for real on August 18th, it is a chance to show their divisional foe what they have in terms of young talent.
Although GM/head coach Wally Buono has been at this for a long time, the CFL’s all-time leader in coaching wins admits he still gets excited to strap on the pads: even if it doesn’t mean anything in the standings. After all, game action adds a whole new layer to their evaluation and picking a final roster before camp breaks next Wednesday.
“I am anxious to see these guys perform,” said the CFL Godfather.
“You’re starting to form your opinion, you’re starting to see the guys that you believe will be your next stars. If they have great games it will build their confidence and restore their faith.”
You have to take pre-season for what it is, but there is a belief that the result of your first game can have a positive impact. Last season there were all sorts of questions in Kamloops. How would Jonathon Jennings perform? How would Buono adjust to his return to the sidelines after five years upstairs? How would the revamped offensive line perform? A 28-16 win in Saskatchewan no doubt helped erase some of those questions and set the tone for a big turnaround for the franchise.
As far as the quarterbacks go, all four are expected to see action. The duty for Jennings and Travis Lulay will be minimal, while Keith Price and Alex Ross should expect a heavier workload as the battle for number three remains in high gear. Buono indicated nothing is set in stone, although Price seems to have taken advantage of having last year under his belt.
“Our expectations are much higher on Keith and when you grade them, you grade them a little more severe,” said Buono on the University of Washington product.
“He has shown the things we have always believed he has; which is a good arm, good vision and good decisions. He is going to have to use all those qualities tomorrow.
One of the more impressive rookies in Kamloops has been defensive lineman Junior Luke, the seventh overall pick from May’s CFL Draft. The Montreal Carabins product could not stop smiling at the though of his first professional action.
“I’m excited to show what I can do on the field against another team, and that I can play at this level,” said Luke.
“The main thing for me is having fun and enjoying the process. I’ve been saying that the whole time.”
Luke may seem calm, cool and collected off the field, but on it he has been a wrecking ball for the opposing offensive line. With the Stampeders known for their ability to stockpile quality offensive linemen, Tuesday should go down as the perfect opening test.
“The only thing I can control on the field is what I do myself,” explained Luke.
“I am definitely going to watch some film on their offensive line scheme, but the main thing I have to do is play 100 percent hard and not make mistakes. I am not satisfied with what I have accomplished yet.”
“It should be intense, but we’ve backed off the last two days so they can get some of the soreness out of their system,” added Buono.
“We know it’s always an uptight moment, especially for these young guys because there is a lot at stake. They know a lot is on the line in this game.”
A lot of questions will soon be answered. One of the more competitive camps in recent memory should no doubt become even more intriguing in the next nine days.
Receivers: Corey Jones and Tyler Davis have been two of the most intriguing newcomers in Kamloops. Both will get some work in at the ‘X’ spot, where Chris Williams is expected to start once healthy. There are no shortage of options should Williams not be ready when things get going for real. The progress of Douglas McNeill, the top offensive performer from Kamloops mini-camp, will also be interesting to track.
Linebackers: There remains no clear favourite to replace Adam Bighill at the weakside position. Micah Awe and Cameron Ontko are slotted in as game starters, while the likes of Tony Burnett and Dyshawn Davis will see their fair share of action. Another interesting wrinkle is the fact Chandler Fenner will continue to get a look at the nickel position. Mark Washington has spent a lot of time implementing his system and it will be fun to see these playmakers see some live action.
Secondary: This represents the part of the roster that has seen the most tinkering since that fateful November afternoon in Calgary. Keynan Parker and Matt Bucknor have been engaged in a great battle at wide side corner. It has been the expectation a non-import will start there after the trade of Mike Edem to Saskatchewan. Tevin McDonald looks to build off his impressive camp at the safety position. The goal from day one has been to improve on the league-worst nine interceptions in 2016.
Defensive Line: We’ve talked about the intrigue surrounding Luke. Tuesday also allows us a first look at Frank Alexander ( pictured right), Kenneth Boatright and Josh Shirley. Alexander is coming off a foot injury, while Boatright and Shirley have both impressed in practice. Making life difficult for opposing QB’s is also a big part of the recipe this season. Buono’s mission statement has always been you have to own the line of scrimmage. Expect him to preach that over and over.
“Competition is the process of getting what you want. I’ve been having competition since I joined football. In seventh grade I was on the D team starting off. I didn’t want to be on the D team, so you have to keep working at what you want to impress these coaches. I’m excited because the defensive line I have in front of me is incredible.”
As expected, the Lions will travel five offensive line starters from 2016. It will be neat to track the early progress without seven-time all-star Jovan Olafioye. Hunter Steward is currently slotted in at left tackle, a position he played prior to the shuffle last year.
The Stampeders will not dress 2016 Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell. Andrew Buckley, Mitchell Gale and Ricky Stanzi will split the reps. behind centre.
Including the Western Final, Calgary took four of five meetings in 2016. The lone Lions’ victory came in a thrilling comeback in week one at BC Place.
This game is not televised, but you can listen to TSN 1040 for all of the pre-game, play-by-play and post-game coverage. Scott Rintoul and Giulio Caravatta have the call at 6:00 PM Pacific time.
You can download the roster and depth chart for Tuesday’s clash HERE!
Matt Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org