Lions better but not there yet

Jon Jennings knew there could be a variety of storylines to discuss during a quiet moment at training camp this year, but he was also thrilled to know one had gone away.

Having established himself among the best to play his position in franchise history last year, the quarterback of the B.C. Lions was almost a media afterthought this year in Kamloops, no longer the subject of scrutiny as to whether he can help provide the CFL team with consistent offence.

Jennings would talk about how he can cut down on his interceptions and sharpen his mental focus after throwing for 5,226 yards last season. But after prevailing in a home playoff date and re-establishing some home-field dominance in Wally Buono’s coaching return last year, only one subject of true relevance is in sight this season for the Lions, and most days they are putting on red uniforms a time zone away.

Buono’s former quarterback, Calgary Stampeders president and general manager John Hufnagel, has assembled a team that has largely been unbeatable since the two began their respective runs.

Calgary was virtually unopposed all last season until falling short in overtime in the Grey Cup of course, but though the Lions came close and handed the Stamps one of two regular season losses, B.C. measured itself in no uncertain terms by the 42-15 pounding they absorbed in last year’s West Division final.

Getting better, but not nearly good enough.

B.C. will be in tough with the rest of a highly-competitive West Division, but the fact remains the Lions will gauge their success in head-to-head competition with Calgary this season, undoubtedly as will the rest of the league.

Buono talked about it all winter and reshaped his team accordingly. When asked, and it wasn’t often, Jennings did too.

“Everyone knows that we’re not going to say ‘Calgary sucks’. They beat us multiple times. They obviously have a great team. Calgary is setting the standard,” Jennings said.

Yet Jennings established standards of his own, and having erased the doubts that come with inexperience, wonders what he might be able to accomplish this year now that he is not looking over his shoulder and wondering if Buono will pull him in favour of Travis Lulay.

Jennings is a team captain now, voted into one of the positions by his peers, representing the considerable distance he’s come in a short time.

“I was thinking about that… It’s sweet,” Jennings said about the absence of scrutiny in camp. “It’s definitely different not to have that looming over me, having to worry that if I play bad will I be benched? It’s kind of nice to have answered that question a little bit.”

However the Lions haven’t demonstrated they can beat Calgary more than once in four tries, as was the case last year, and until they do Jennings’ numbers are irrelevant. So are those of his teammates.

B.C.’s top receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux, may have just been hamming it up for the cameras in a pre-season TSN feature when he sat alongside Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and said the Lions wouldn’t lose to the Stamps this season. It was, however, a tacit acknowledgement of the current state of play within the division and the focus they will have when the teams meet.

Buono’s team absorbed substantial losses in NFL defections and free agent departures, to say nothing of self-inflicted wounds. But though the Lions could improve on last year’s 12-6 record, they’ll still need the Stamps to come back to the rest of the league to have a chance at hosting the division final.

There’s two ways the season could go, outlined as follows:

The Dream Scenario

Well, duh….this isn’t terribly difficult, right? Black-and-orange streamers and confetti abound on the last Sunday of November in Ottawa. The buzz is loud enough finally back in Vancouver until fans realize Jennings’ Grey Cup-winning performance has him thinking about exercising his NFL option-year window.

It’s certainly possible. B.C. already has one of the best receiving corps in the league even before injured free agent wideout Chris Williams makes his Lions debut in a few weeks. The offensive front is stable and the ground game with Jeremiah Johnson shouldn’t take a supreme step back, even though the Lions ditched the idea of a tandem after leading the league in rushing last year.

Defensively, the Lions painfully parted ways with Ryan Phillips and a procedural move allowed Adam Bighill to escape to the NFL. B.C. tied for the league lead in sacks last season but often needed to send pressure from the back.

Buono addressed that shortcoming by building a roster top-heavy with defensive linemen and while Phillips is in Montreal the secondary might be more agile. Injuries last year knocked out three starters, but Ronnie Yell, T.J. Lee are back and the defence showed signs in pre-season they’ll provide more turnovers to take advantage of Jennings’ arm and the field position reliability that should come from the signing of free agent kicker Swayze Waters.

The Nightmare Alternative

Then again, all this rush to get younger, faster and cheaper is all too much in a competitive division. There’s something to be said for experience and this year the Lions dumped 14 players with an average of 6.3 CFL years of service for 14 with 1.14 average years of experience. B.C. starts play against the Edmonton Eskimos Saturday with nine rookies on the 46-man roster, rekindling words from former coach Dave Ritchie, who used to count one loss for every first-year player in his lineup.

Gifting Jovan Olafioye to Montreal proves to be a mistake. And Williams never does get into the lineup, making the Lions thankful they signed him to a two-year deal. Johnson is nothing without Anthony Allen spelling him off in the backfield. A move after training camp to put Loucheiz Purifoy at safety backfires. Waters remains unhealthy and Paul McCallum is summoned again.

Worse, owner David Braley realizes there’s no end to the attendance drainage and finally makes up his mind to unload the team to a group of willing local buyers.

HOW THEY’LL LINE UP

Offence: QBs Jon Jennings, Travis Lulay, Alex Ross; OLs Hunter Steward, David Foucault, Cody Husband, Kirby Fabien, Charles Vaillancourt, Antonio Johnson, Jaz Dhillon; RBs Jeremiah Johnson, Rolly Lumbala, Chris Rainey, Dakota Brush; WRs Emmanuel Arceneaux, Nick Moore, Bryan Burnham, Marco Iannuzzi, Danny Vandervoort, Shaquille Johnson

Defence: DLs Craig Roh, Mich’ael Brooks, Bryant Turner, DeQuin Evans, David Menard,, Maxx Forde, Junior Luke, Josh Shirley; LBs Solomon Elimimian, Adrian Clarke, Micah Awe, Tony Burnett, Frederic Chagnon, Jordan Herdman; DBs Ronnie Yell, T.J. Lee, Matt Bucknor, Anthony Thompson, Keynan Parker, Anthony Gaitor, Loucheiz Purifoy, Chandler Fenner

Special teams: K Ty Long;  LS Mike Benson.

46-man extras: DE Dylan Ainsworth, RB Shaquille Murray-Lawrence

Practice roster:  DB Nate Hamlin, DB Tevin McDonald  DL Luther Maddy,  DL Ken Boatright,  RB Tyler Davis,  WR Maurice Morgan

Injured/disabled: , WRs Chris Williams (6-game), Steohen Adekolu;  OL Jeremy Zver, RB Josh Harris, DL Andrew Hudson, LB Dyshawn Davis, DBs Steven Clarke, Buddy Jackson; K/P Swayze Waters

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