Odell Willis trade serves dual role for B.C. Lions

The tacit implication undertaken by Ed Hervey Friday had to do with his perception of the B.C. Lions pass rush, but in acquiring Odell Willis a team that could also use a massive personality injection just got one.

Willis will complete the sweep of playing for every team in the West Division upon reporting to training camp after the Lions new general manager reacquired the 33-year-old as part of a flurry of deals around the CFL as teams brace themselves for the onset of pending free agency in a little over a week.

Willis was actually also a member of the Ottawa Redblacks for a short while. He was traded earlier in the day by the Edmonton Eskimos, who didn’t want to trade him to a team in their own division. The price for the Lions was modest; a fourth-round pick and a player off their soon-to-be not-so-secret negotiation list. But Hervey said he was convinced he wouldn’t find the help he wanted for the defensive front on the open market and made the deal.

It’s another move which provides the steep contrast in approach by Hervey relative to that of Wally Buono over the years. Buono was content to recruit his own talent, and for the past several seasons has committed in a variety of ways to import pass rushers Craig Roh and Alex Bazzie, for example.

Both are pending Lions free agents, and the Willis trade means one or both likely won’t be asked back for the upcoming season. Roh has been working out and doing community work with his teammates in the Lower Mainland periodically during the off-season. Bazzie was brought back almost out of desperation midway through last year in a vain search to find anyone capable of introducing themselves to an opposing quarterback.

Whether Willis has the defensive motor to be effective remains to be seen if for no other reason than his age and the fact he’s set to enter his 11th CFL season; it’s obvious the Eskimos were paving the way for younger talent like 22-year-old Kwaku Boateng, or grew disenchanted with Willis’ hair-trigger release off the defensive line, which had made him a perennial league leader in offside flags.

He has, however, averaged eight sacks over his last three seasons with the Eskimos, having rewarded Hervey’s faith for bringing him to Edmonton in 2013, a mere four minutes into free agency that year, by helping them win the ’15 Grey Cup.

Roh led the Lions last year with seven sacks, which would suggest if Hervey completely whiffs in free agency his new team is arguably better thanks to his latest deal. And it was already improved when he traded several weeks ago for Gabe Knapton.

Beyond what Willis might do to get into opposing backfields, however, is the fact the guy is a joy to be around. That not only represents a first-hand observation but from former teammates and coaches. On TSN 1040’s 3DownRadio last season, Esks defensive coordinator Mike Benevides raved about Willis, admitting that while the guy likes to joke around during games he’s all business at practices.

“Earlier in his career when you looked from afar you wondered if he got it or not, but when you actually get to know him he’s a good leader and someone you want on your team,” Hervey said Friday.

“If you treat the players like people you get to understand them. I ask them what do you want your legacy to be? You can be remembered as a great player but still not lose your personality. I always say (to players) ‘remember, kids are watching.’ Odell is one of those players you want to be around no matter what people have tried to say about him.”

Hervey was able to help Willis strike a balance when he acquired him from Saskatchewan after the 2012 season and has maintained it since. He was the Mayor of Swaggerville in Winnipeg and adopted a similar title during his years at Commonwealth Stadium.

“I bring a big personality — 24-7 this is who I am. I bring a lot of positive energy and I love living life,” Willis said upon joining the Eskimos. “I bring energy to everything I do. In this sport, it’s said you get paid to practice and play the games for fun. But I love practice.”

Surely some of that will rub off with the Lions. Let the good times and barrel rolls begin.

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.