Lions DL making Turn-er for better

KAMLOOPS — The defensive line was an area of concern through part of last season, and the B.C. Lions responded by acquiring the type of proven, fire-breathing pass rush monster they’ve been seeking since the departure of Cam Wake.

But what if prized free agent signing Bryant Turner (above) was overtaken by any of a number of promising rookie imports who have made picking a group too close to call through the first portion of training camp?

If nothing else, it speaks to the recruiting work of personnel director Neil McEvoy and U.S. based assistant Ryan Rigmaiden, who helped assemble a group that desperately needs a pre-season game or two to help separate. Through the first week the Lions haven’t sent home a single defensive line candidate other than Pep Levingston, who failed his physical.

Bryant became available when he was part of the most recent purge of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and the Lions were able to secure the 28-year-old at a far more reasonable price tag.

Through the early going though, it has become more clear that the Lions are going to ride second-year tackle Mich’ael Brooks, raising the question whether they want a five-year vet like Bryant as a change-up, or choose from a decent crop of relative youngsters.

It hasn’t helped matters either than Turner has been nursing a hamstring issue the last several days. He gave try as the Lions hit the field for their only practice session Sunday but only briefly.

However the Lions aren’t looking for an every-down player, as Turner was at times in Winnipeg, but one who is as comfortable playing inside as rushing off the edge in smaller doses, which plays to his strength.

One thing’s for sure though, with five largely unrewarding seasons in Winnipeg, Turner appreciates the comparative stability of the Lions, which is why has no interest making demands for playing time.

“If they want me to play quarterback I’ll play it, even if it wouldn’t be any good,” he smiled. “This is one of the most talented d-line groups I’ve been part of in a while. When I was released (by Winnipeg) I was one of the last players who was there since 2011, and it’s amazing to see you’re walking into a (Lions) team that’s basically established.”

Or not.

When looking at defensive front recently, coach/GM Wally Buono was only willing to concede an import job to Brooks (see below), which may not be reassuring to returning ends Alex Bazzie and Craig Roh but also a five-year CFL vet like Turner.

Want proof that a 7-11 team last year is potentially better? The primary piece of evidence is the fact the most experienced CFL player in the position group hasn’t nailed down a roster spot yet.

       LIONS TALES: The Lions benefitted from holding their annual controlled scrimmage Saturday night when the sundown temperature was only around 33C. It was 36C unofficially when practice ended Sunday. Also benefitting from the scrimmage was QB Keith Price, who continued to maintain a bit of distance from Greg McGhee for the third-string job. Other names worth remembering should they continue to show up in game situations: DL George Uko, LB Victor Aiyewa, DL Darius Allen and DL Ese Mrabure. Best moment of the night, in what amounts to more proof of the bond between the team and its training camp home, came when the club let a local cancer survivor, seven-year-old Lizzie Harbaruk, run the ball for a touchdown on the final play… Making his first visit to Kamloops Sunday since rejoining the Lions: Hall of Fame scouting aide Bob O’Billovich.

Positional breakdown

Defensive line

Returning 2015 starters: Craig Roh, Mich’eal Brooks, Jabar Westerman, Zach Minter

Returning backups: Alex Bazzie, Maxx Forde, David Menard, Ese Mrabure

New on view: Bryant Turner (Winnipeg, CFL), Darius Allen (Colorado State), George Uko (USC), Jacques Smith (Tennessee), Andrew Hudson (Washington), Boyd Richardson (UBC).

The breakdown: If Jeremiah Johnson vs. Anthony Allen at running back is the best individual battle, the best positional fight for jobs by far is on the front four. Part of the intrigue is in the fact the Lions want to rotate with a linebacker more than the past to provide varying looks but still figure on carrying six on the active roster. That makes the competition fierce so far.

Westerman, who’ll play far more inside this year, is a lock and so too is Menard as a backup, along with Brooks, who is blowing up teammates during drills. Now it gets interesting. Roh and Bazzie have held down the starting end spots throughout camp. Both are being pushed, however, by rookie Darius Allen, by far the most vocal of the newcomers, who was with the regulars in place of Bazzie Sunday. Uko is also pushing extremely hard as another rotational player on the inside and likely has already bypassed Minter, who was injured early in camp.

But despite a lacklustre rookie season, 2015 top non-import draft Mrabure has improved in drills and the Lions sound like they would like to find a way to keep him. Practice roster spots at best are only likely for Smith, Hudson and Richardson.



Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.