Training camp is always a time for optimism.
It’s no different for B.C. Lions co-general manager Neil McEvoy as his team starts to prepare for the upcoming 2023 Canadian Football League season with camp beginning May 10 in Kamloops.
“The optimism for us would be just the fact that we have a really good contingent of guys coming back. We’re excited with this group that pointed us in the winning direction last year,” said McEvoy.
The Lions are coming off a solid campaign which saw them go 12-6 and host their first playoff game since 2016.
The on-field performance, combined with owner Amar Doman’s marketing strategies, revitalized a frustrated fan base.
Now comes the tough part: building on 2022.
“Every year is a different challenge. We have a great contingent of young players that are older within this organization but they’re still young guys. Guys like Keon Hatcher, Guys like Marcus Sayles. Guys like Garry Peters and T.J. Lee. We like the depth of our football team as we go down the line,” said McEvoy, who is now in his 28th year with the organization.
“Now our young guys like Nathan Cherry and Miles Fox - guys who made plays for us last year - are going to be expected to do that much more. There’s no reason to think that they won’t because that’s usually what happens. If you make it into your second year of pro football, you’re trending in the right direction. If you’re not around after your second year, that means you’re going in the wrong direction. And we’ve got players who are trending in the right direction. So we’ll continue to build this team but we really like this group of guys.”
A key player in 2022 was quarterback Nathan Rourke, who was on pace for a record-breaking season before suffering a foot injury in August which caused him to basically miss the second half before returning for the playoffs.
Unless you have spent the past five months in a cabin outside of Atlin, you probably know that Rourke has taken his services south of the border and signed with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
Thus Vernon Adams Jr. comes into camp as the incumbent at quarterback with Dane Evans, who was acquired from Hamilton, as an insurance policy.
Ironically enough, McEvoy feels more comfortable about the quarterback position now than he did a year ago at this time.
“Nathan Rourke - God bless him for what he did – but he was an unknown. This year, we have Vernon who’s a proven guy and who’s been working with our offensive coordinator and our offensive staff all off-season. I’m excited. I would say Vernon’s arguably one of the best quarterbacks in three-down football,” explains McEvoy.
The offense should be in good hands with Adams and Evans but there are areas that need to be addressed.
Wide receiver Bryan Burnham retired after a stellar eight-year career. Veteran offensive lineman Joel Figueroa, one of the team’s grittiest players, signed with Hamilton. Running back James Butler, who rushed for 1,060 yards last year, also signed with Hamilton.
As good as Burnham was, his loss will be somewhat muted as the Lions boast one of the strongest receiving groups in the league with Hatcher, Dominique Rhymes and Lucky Whitehead leading the way.
The team is high on the players that they have brought in to fill Butler’s spot with Antonio Williams and Buddy Howell being the favorites due to their pedigree but with Raymond Calais, Vance McShane and Taquan Mizzell also in the mix.
“Running back and left guard are two of the biggest position battles just because there are unknowns competing there, but the reality is that if you talk to (Lions director of U.S. scouting) Ryan Rigmaiden, the running back spot has been upgraded. He likes the ability and the potential of the guys we brought in. We feel that we have a good group of young guys to compete for that position,” explained McEvoy.
“And that’s the same as the left guard position. Guys like David Knevel have played in this league for a while. We have a contingent of guys that have the ability to play at that left guard spot. We have no doubt that one of those guys will separate themselves at camp.”
Defensively, the Lions look solid up front. The defensive line features David Menard, Mathieu Betts and Sione Teuhema – a trio which combined for 23 sacks – and has been bolstered by the return of free agent signee Shawn Lemon. Lemon, now in his third tour of duty with the Lions, had 14 sacks with Calgary in 2022.
Despite trading Jordan Williams to Toronto, the linebacker group is solid with up-and-coming youngsters Ben Hladik and Manny Rugamba teaming up with veteran Bo Lokombo while the secondary returns four of five starters. The one spot vacated by Loucheiz Purifoy will be contested for by sophomore Quincy Mauger and free agent acquisition Mike Jones.
“I say the secondary is the strength of our football team. T.J. Lee is arguably one of the best ever who has dressed in our uniform. We are very excited about this group and they are the leaders of our football team. These are the guys who are the most vocal and are our elder statesmen - guys like T.J. and Gary Peters. Even Marcus Sayles is going into his third year with our team so he’s no longer a new guy. We are excited about the defense and how that will shape up because I believe that we have a good group of guys that will make us very competitive on the field,” said McEvoy.
As far as special teams are concerned, Sean Whyte and Stefan Flintoft return to handle the kicking and punting duties respectively and the team should be in good shape with this duo. If there is one area that the Lions need to clean up, it’s their coverage on kickoffs and they will also need to improve their return game.
Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media. And check out his weekly podcast every Monday at Today in B.C. or your local Black Press Media website.