One of the big storylines around this Grey Cup will be how B.C.'s defensive line matches up against the Winnipeg offensive line. That offensive line is going to have to adjust to both warm, indoor conditions and a crazy crowd, but the most difficult part of their task may be the guys they're matched up against. The Lions' defensive line was one of the best in the league this year, part of the overall B.C. defensive dominance that led to their turnaround, and they boast four players who recorded six sacks or more: defensive ends Keron Williams (11) and Brent Johnson (seven) and defensive tackles Aaron Hunt (six) and Khalif Mitchell (six). I spoke to Mitchell at the Lions' lunch with media Thursday about what makes the B.C. defensive line so successful, and he attributed it to their diverse talents and ability to work together.
"You've got Keron Williams, who's just an animal, and my big boys, Eric Taylor and Aaron Hunt, we all go in there," he said. "We're the monsters of the middle. Then you've got Brent Johnson, who's the captain of the ship."
Mitchell (seen above in the West Final telling Ricky Ray to go for a soda) said Johnson's inspirational leadership has helped the rest of the line grow together.
"You look at Brent, sometimes it's like, 'Aw, Brent, you make it look too easy, way too easy,' but that's his job," Mitchell said. "He tells people left or right. He's not down the middle; it's not grey, it's black or white. One thing that we love and respect him for is his leadership ability. He doesn't lead by talking or cursing at you, he just leads by example. Everyone knows what Brent Johnson did and he talks to you like a man, which is why he has my respect."
The Lions started 0-5 this year, making it somewhat unlikely they'd get to this stage. Mitchell said they were still confident in their abilities, but they overcame the slump by keeping focused on individual clashes rather than the goal at the end of the road.
"I don't think necessarily we looked at the Grey Cup," he said. "We weren't talking about the Grey Cup, we were going to just go ahead and play our game and take it one game at a time. ... We understood that if you take it one game at a time, week by week, then it should pay off."
There's a lot of hype around the Lions now given their season-ending run, and they're huge favourites to triumph at home Sunday, but Mitchell said the hype isn't affecting the players.
"As far as how the season went, as far as where we came from and where we're going, I don't think it's necessarily hype," he said. "It's just the mood and the atmosphere. All my teammates are very calm and confident and comfortable in each other, it's very good."
Mitchell said he is loving the palpable excitement around Vancouver, though.
"It's wonderful," he said. "It's a good buildup."
That excitement should be reflected in the stands Sunday, and that could be a boost for Mitchell and the defensive line; if the fans are raucous while the Bombers are on offence, that could distract the offensive line enough to make the defensive line's task easier. Mitchell said he's thrilled whenever fans are there to cheer him and his teammates on, and he's hoping to see that Sunday.
"I love it," he said. "They're my orchestra. They're my choir."