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Continuing our CFL Camp Countdown series of training camp previews, here's a look at the reigning Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions based off Monday's conference call with president Dennis Skulsky, general manager Wally Buono and head coach Mike Benevides.
— There are plenty of notable storylines with the Lions this year, including Buono's move to take just the GM job, Benevides taking over as head coach, the development of QB Travis Lulay and the difficulties in defending their Grey Cup title. However, one of the most intriguing elements comes from what they've done this offseason, particularly in the secondary; a group that already looked like a strength of the team last season now looks like the most fearsome corps in the league, thanks to Buono electing to bring back Dante Marsh and Ryan Phillips, keep Korey Banks and add all-stars Lin-J Shell and Byron Parker. Every GM would love to bring in all-stars, obviously, but many would first focus on positions that didn't necessarily look as strong to begin with rather than work on building a super-elite group. Buono said that's not his philosophy, though; he's always looking to improve his squad, regardless of how strong they are in a certain position already.
"The job of the GM is to always try and improve his football club," he said. "When you want to be the best, you've got to bring in the best guys to compete."
— Buono said one of the big motivations for acquiring Shell and Parker was to upgrade the size and physicality of his corps of defensive backs to go with Benevides' stylistic wishes. Both are listed at 5'11, so they're not mammoths, but they're bigger and taller than some of the Lions' previous DBs, and both have been known to hit hard.
"Mike's made it very clear he wants to play more physical football," Buono said. "These are guys who are big and physical."
— Bigger defensive backs have recently become a league-wide trend in the NFL (including CFL alumnus Brandon Browner), given the growing size of receivers. Buono said he thinks the same thing's going on in the CFL.
"The receivers are getting bigger," he said. "The defensive backs, if you can get them bigger, it's going to help you."
— Things didn't end the way Parker or Shell presumably would have liked in Toronto, but Buono said that only gives them more motivation to excel with the Lions.
"For these guys, it's a fresh start in an organization that values their skills," Buono said. "They're quality men, they're good football players. They're all excited about being here."
— The defensive backs have seen change, but two other areas surprisingly haven't, thanks to defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell's decision to turn down the NFL and right tackle Jovan Olafioye failing his NFL physical. Buono said those returns are huge for the Lions.
"Those were two big players we didn't lose that I think everyone expected us to lose," he said. "That bodes well for us."
— Buono said Mitchell's case in particular speaks to what the Lions have built.
"You're trying to create an environment where you're looking out for the best interests of the player," he said. "When Khalif turned his back on the NFL, he was saying, 'I feel comfortable here, I belong here, and I'd rather have those qualities than constantly be in pursuit of the almighty dollar.'"
— Another big offseason move the Lions made was giving Canadian running back Andrew Harris a contract extension. Skulsky said the success of Harris, who rose from junior football to a starring role with B.C. last year, is proof of the calibre of junior football talent. Interestingly enough, the Lions now have plenty of junior players; in addition to Harris, this offseason has seen them bring in Stu Foord, another Canadian running back with a junior football background, and they just extended training-camp invites to Vancouver Island Raiders quarterback Jordan Yantz and Kelowna Sun players Danny Turek (a receiver) and Steven Deoge (a defensive lineman).
"These are good athletes who just chose another route than the CIS," Skulsky said. "Andrew was undrafted, but I don't know if there are too many first-round picks who had the impact he did last year."
— Both Buono and Benevides are taking on different roles this year, with Buono focusing only on the personnel side and Benevides moving up from defensive coordinator to head coach. Buono said he thinks both those moves are working out.
"My transition so far has been really good," he said. "I think Mike's done an outstanding job to this point."
— Something that's remarkable is that both the Lions' general manager and head coach are Canadians, the only such tandem in the CFL right now. Buono said Benevides' promotion had nothing to do with his passport, though. He'd rather see it as a reflection of the growing Canadian coaching talent out there.
"The fact he's a non-import speaks volumes about where we're coming in this country," Buono said.
— While there are new roles for some, Benevides said retaining the Lions' key staff of offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine and special-teams coordinator Chuck McMann and bringing in defensive coordinator Rich Stubler (who worked with the Lions in 2010) means there will be a lot of continuity. He said he's thrilled to have those three guys on board.
"I was very fortunate to put that group together."
— Benevides is also excited about working with defensive backs coach Mark Washington, who he sees as a hot up-and-coming coaching prospect.
"He's a shining star," Benevides said. "He knows how to teach."
— One new addition to the staff is a CFL novice, but has a ton of football experience. That would be defensive line coach Carl Hairston, who spent 15 years as a NFL lineman and linebacker and has been coaching in the NFL and UFL since. Benevides said Hairston is a great fit for the staff.
"Here's an experienced man who knows what it takes to win."
— Former CFL offensive lineman Kelly Bates spent last year on the Lions' staff and will be with them again this year, working with the linemen and preparing the team for the CFL draft. Benevides said Bates was terrific in that role this year, and with the growing importance of the draft, he sees that as a crucial contribution.
"He did a great job of bringing information to the group," Benevides said. "I think that's tremendously, tremendously important."
— That draft saw some notable decisions from the Lions, including their move up to #2 to grab defensive end Jabar Westerman and their later-round picks of Western offensive lineman Matt Norman and Calgary linebacker Jordan Verdone, an impressive linebacker who Buono said they may also try at another position.
"One of the things we're looking at also is him as a fullback," Buono said. "He's a very good football player, and he's a very tough kid."
— Benevides said although he and Buono are on the same page in many respects, fans should still expect to see things go a little differently this year, particularly in the Lions' aggressiveness.
"I'm going to be myself, I'm not going to be Wally," he said. "Whether it's offence or defence, we're going to push the envelope and find ways to manufacture explosive plays."
— Benevides said getting a head-coaching job in the CFL job is something he never dreamed of when he started playing football at Toronto's Central Tech high school.
"It's been a hell of a journey," he said. "It's a dream come true."