Odell Willis is acting more like his old self again.
The veteran defensive lineman began his stay with the B.C. Lions last week talking like a rookie but only a few days into his 10th CFL training camp once more sounded like among the leagues most flamboyant personalities when asked about his five seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos.
Willis is part of a large migration of former Edmonton players acquired by new Lions general manager Ed Hervey, another Eskimos alumnus. The 33-year-old Willis didn’t hold back when asked if he knew why he was part of an off-season, three-team deal that landed him with his fifth West Division squad.
B.C.’s new starting rush end was told he was acquired to bring his leadership to change the locker-room culture with the Lions. He is not sure if that was the same reason he was dealt by Edmonton after talking with Eskimos coach Jason Maas.
“I basically read through what he told me and realized my time was done (in Edmonton) and the fact other players were telling me (coaches) think I’m a bad leader or spoiled apple. Why would they let me lead the team? How can I go from being the best leader in the league to all of a sudden the worst leader?” Willis said.
The player known as the Mayor of Swaggerville in Winnipeg acted more like a rookie upon reporting to camp. Willis tweeted on social media last week that he was excited and nervous about joining the Lions.
The Edmonton exit has played a small part, Willis said, in taking a subordinate role during his first week with the Lions. The barrell-rolls which have been part of Willis’ game after sacks will likely have to wait until the Lions open the regular season at home June 16 against Montreal.
“You always get excited to start a new season. The fact you’re doing it with a new team, you have rookie expectations. Guys look to you to help them but I’m new here too,” said Willis.
“When you got guys like Travis Lulay, Solomon Elimimian and Manny Arceneaux there’s a respect factor. My thing is to fit in and learn their ways and that helps the younger guys buy in. I know their way works.”
Despite being the oldest player on a roster that has 51 new faces in camp, coach Wally Buono is touting Willis as a possible every-down defensive lineman this season in a revamped front four. Willis didn’t make it through practice Thursday, however, removed as a precaution after suffering a possible concussion.
“People don’t realize that the best pass rushers are 30-plus,” said Buono. “Pass-rushing is an art. Odell does it really well. He gets off that ball really fast and gives you something that’s going to affect the quarterback.”
Willis and Gabe Knapton, acquired in an off-season trade from Montreal, will be B.C. starters off the defensive edge. The Lions will rotate a Canadian through the interior alongside a rookie international after the team recently cut veteran import Mich’ael Brooks.
Willis ended his final year in Edmonton being rested in rotation along with veteran internationals Phillip Hunt and John Chick.
“That was kind of confusing to me. If that’s the case, why don’t you rotate quarterbacks?” Willis said.
B.C.’s biggest challenge will be to take advantage of the quickness of Willis and hope he doesn’t cost his new team yardage on a regular basis. Willis is annually also one of the league leaders taking offside penalties.
“It may happen but it’s not something to live with ever giving away free yardage,” said Lions defensive line coach Randy Melvin.
However, limiting expression won’t be an issue once Willis comes out of his shell, said Melvin, a no-nonsense assistant.
“I learned a long time ago, when I had a player who was wild and expressive and I clamped down on him and he didn’t produce, I said ‘go back to it, please.’ You learn over time that performance is reality,” said Melvin.
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