Ronnie Yell back healthy and leading B.C. Lions’ resurgent secondary

Ronnie Yell dropped into coverage, read the play and was stunned by what was unfolding in front of him.

With roughly 90 seconds left on the clock and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers set up at their own 32-yard line in a 42-42 tie, the B.C. Lions defensive back faked like he was going deep at the snap before camping out about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.

Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols, who never took his eyes off the intended receiver to his left, was fooled as Yell jumped the route for a decisive interception last Friday to set up his team’s game-winning field goal.

“I just played the situation,” Yell recalled this week. “I couldn’t believe he threw it.”

After a broken foot suffered in warmups before a game abruptly ended his 2016 season last August, Yell could only watch as the club’s injury-ravaged secondary managed a CFL-low nine interceptions.

Minus the likes of Yell, T.J. Lee (Achilles tendon) and Steven Clarke (knee), B.C. managed to finish with a middle-of-the-pack average of 291.4 passing yards against per contest, but the absence of momentum-shifting turnovers, especially late in games, gnawed at both head coach Wally Buono and defensive co-ordinator Mark Washington.

Fast-forward through the first five weeks of 2017 and the Lions already have four interceptions as part of their 10 takeaways – they had just 29 last year – with Yell sitting in a three-way tie for second in the CFL with two picks.

“He brings a lot to the table, from his experience to his play-making ability to his talent,” said Washington, a former DB who also coaches B.C.’s secondary. “When you take all those things off the field, there’s a big hole.”

As the Lions’ boundary corner usually matched up against an opponent’s best wide receiver on the short side of the field, the five-foot-10, 185-pound Yell is also second in the league with six pass knockdowns and third on the team with 18 defensive tackles, to go along with a fumble recovery.

“It feels amazing,” the 26-year-old Los Angeles native said of being able to contribute again. “Whenever your season ends on a fluke injury like that, all you think about is what you could have done to help the team, how you’re going to come back.

“The foot’s holding up nice, secondary’s jelling together.”

In his fourth full year with the Lions, the San Jose State product has been thrust into a leadership role as part of a group that has seen a lot of change since he arrived at the tail end of 2013.

“I’m definitely a vet in the crew now,” said Yell. “I’m just trying to take the younger guys under my wing as Dante Marsh, Ryan Phillips and Korey Banks did when I came in.

“I know they’re looking at me as a role model and what to do next. I’ve just got to lead them the right way.”

Part of that leadership was on display before his clutch interception against Winnipeg. The Lions lost both Anthony Gaitor and Keynan Parker to injuries earlier in the game, forcing a position shuffle in the secondary with just five healthy defensive backs.

The unit – and the defence as a whole – rebounded with a fourth-quarter shutout that was capped by Yell’s pick after the Bombers had scored 28 straight points to grab a 42-27 lead.

“We were quite harsh with the players with what happened in the third quarter. That was a total meltdown,” said Buono, also the team’s general manager. “That’s not something we should be proud of, and honestly we should be embarrassed by it. But the fourth quarter was totally different.

“Ronnie made a great play. You can tell he’s been around. He kind of baited the quarterback.”

As B.C. (4-1) prepares to visit Edmonton (4-0) in a Friday showdown for first in the West Division, not to mention a matchup that could determine a playoff tiebreaker following the Eskimos’ road victory over the Lions in Week 1, Yell has a new perspective following last season’s miserable conclusion.

“Devastating,” he said of the injury. “I thought I was invincible. I never thought I could get hurt like that, but it happened in the most flukey way.

“It does make you appreciate the game and take care of your body a lot more. You appreciate every day you get to be out here with the guys.”

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