There’s a certain amount of linear thinking that flies in the face of one reason why the B.C. Lions have turned a few heads early in the CFL season, represented in a recent chat with sophomore tailback Shaquille Murray-Lawrence when describing himself.
“I don’t view myself as an American running back or Canadian running back. I am a running back,” the suburban Toronto product said, expressing a widely-held view by players in the CFL. Quite true enough, and the team that puts together the right mix is usually smoking cigars and sipping from the Grey Cup each winter.
It’s also true, however, that the team which puts together the stronger lineup of Canadian talent is also the most successful. And though there are miles to go this year, a huge reason for the Lions’ 2-0 start heading into Thursday’s test against the Toronto Argonauts is the collective performance of their non-import, sorry, national talent.
Not always have the Lions been identified as an industry leader in that category. In fact, many years they’ve been closer to last than first where Canadian productivity is concerned.
It’s not the fact the Lions have received contributions from their most recent crop of drafted non-imports that has made a difference but that several returning veterans have improved. That includes Murray-Lawrence, who wasn’t overpowering when given his first chance to close out a win over Hamilton last week after tailbacks Jeremiah Johnson and Chris Rainey went down, but was effective enough.
On offence, Shawn Gore (above) has benefitted immensely from a decision by coach Wally Buono to give him the short-side wideout spot when Lavelle Hawkins retired at training camp. Up front, Hunter Steward has adjusted to a new position at left guard. Same for Cody Husband at centre.
Defensively, the Lions knew linebacker Bo Lokombo would grow, but have also benefitted from better work from tackle Jabar Westerman. Mike Edem is a big improvement at safety. The two drafted rookies who are getting playing time, guard Charles Vaillancourt and defensive back Anthony Thompson, are advancing as might be hoped of first-year players, slow but steady.
The biggest adjustment, however, is one between the collective ears, suggesting the Buono effect on everyone is a huge factor as well.
“It’s an attitude adjustment too,” said Geroy Simon, who holds down the title of CIS scouting director for the Lions. “These guys are given the choice to either step up your game or we’ll find someone to do your job.
“I don’t want to talk about last year but they are treated like men and they are responding. You’re not going to have a great team if the coach is looking over their shoulder.”
Nonetheless, just about all the Canadians listed here were looking over their shoulder until the recent past, and it’s a huge reason why the Lions are looking for three straight wins to start the season against Toronto for the first time in nine years.
It hasn’t always been so upbeat. Unquestionably the drafting of Ese Mrabure-Ajufo, recently lost to but not playing for Saskatchewan, was a swing and a miss. Buono has taken his share of other risks at the draft table, from Adam Nicholson to Danny Watkins.
Some of the other players he’s secured previously, like Gore and Westerman, are off to a much better start, and it’s made a difference.
“Shawn runs curl routes and comebacks better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Simon, who knows a little about the topic. “Westerman is playing better. I wasn’t excited with him last year but he’s put on some weight and he looks quicker and stronger.”
There’s no quarrel with either of the Lions’ top two picks this year.
“The reason we drafted (Vaillancourt) is because he’s physical, tough and can handle playing. He’s not a deer in the headlights,” said Simon of Vaillancourt, who won’t play against Toronto.
On Thompson, who is being worked into more defensive packages, Simon said: “He’s not overwhelmed. You can see the guys we targeted are the right guys. They’re contributing right away.”
So are many others of course. But before looking directly at a defence that has allowed an average of 10.5 points through two games or field position advantages gained by Rainey runbacks, take note of another area of the Lions’ overall gameplan. Tonight, the Lions are honouring another group for work that often goes unrecognized, the Canadian Armed Forces. It’s probably fitting based on early results.