Assessing the B.C. Lions’ 2020 coaching staff

A new year blossoms and the Rick Campbell-era of the B.C. Lions is now in full swing.

The new bench boss revealed his coaching staff on Monday and the distinctive melding of Ottawa and Edmonton flavours shows the cooperation between he and general manager Ed Hervey. Its an eclectic mix of grizzled experience and young up-and-comers, Canadians and Americans, recognizable names and unknowns.

The hiring of a coaching staff is the most important decision that any head coach can make and Campbell’s strength as a manager was one of the big draws to hiring him. It was expected, more than any other candidate, that Campbell could recruit, hire and effectively manage the best possible staff.

So how did he do?

Let’s take a look at each of the new hires and see what they mean for the future of the Leos.

Jordan Maksymic, offensive coordinator

A lot of fans were understandably disappointed when Saskatchewan won the Jason Maas sweepstakes and proved all the off-season hype around a Campbell-Maas team-up to be untrue.

If there ever was a perfect consolation prize to Jason Maas, Maksymic is it. He is a Maas disciple and has served as his pass game coordinator since 2016, as well as his offensive coordinator last season. This is an up-and-coming Canadian coach who is very highly regarded, even if his name doesn’t possess the same cache as other candidates.

Most importantly for the Lions, Maksymic has been at least partly responsible for the best seasons of Mike Reilly’s career. Every season from 2016 to 2018, Edmonton’s down the field passing attack was top three in the league in yardage, average yards per attempt and completion percentage.

That type of remarkable efficiency coupled with big play production brought Reilly the Most Outstanding Player Award in 2017. Jason Maas may have been in control of that offence, but Maksymic was integral to the design and execution of the passing game.

What I find equally remarkable is how Maksymic adapted his offence to fit a new quarterback once Reilly left and he was promoted to the role of play-caller. With Trevor Harris at the helm, Maksymic pivoted to a high efficiency, quick passing system.

Relying on the short passing game to march the field, the Eskimos offence remained admirably effective despite what many would describe as a downgrade at quarterback. It also marked the third time in Maksymic’s four year tenure that his passing offence was in the top two in the league for fewest sacks allowed.

Fans may not be dancing in the streets about the Maksymic hire, but they should be getting excited about the potential of a young, proven coach getting the training wheels taken off for the first time.

Don Yanowsky, special teams coordinator

The experienced coaching wisdom portion of this staff comes courtesy of Yanowsky, a 40-year grizzled veteran who has executed essentially every role on a coaching staff at one time or another. He has coached at Memphis, LSU, Boston College, East Carolina, Duke, Arkansas State, Minnesota, Utah and Toledo, along with CFL stints in Calgary and Ottawa.

Despite his experience coaching virtually every position group, most recently Yanowksy has operated in the realm of special teams. He joins the Lions after two years with what can only be described as an overmatched UTEP team (we’re talking no wins in year two overmatched), followed by a stint as defensive coordinator at Holmes Community College. Despite the obvious lack of talent, UTEP only allowed two return touchdowns during his tenure, which I suppose you could chalk up as a small victory.

Struggling with limited talent has been a recent theme with Yanowsky. His last CFL stop was in the same role for Ottawa in 2014 and 2015, cobbling together units for a team that still lacked depth in its early years. That was a difficult and unenviable role, and Yanowksky wasn’t around to see his early work come to full fruition.

With Yanowsky, Lions fans shouldn’t expect a dynamic special teams innovator with a bag full of tricks. Instead, his role will be that of solid, steady hand that can assist and mentor in any aspect of the game where Campbell deems it necessary. That has a lot of value, even if it won’t jump off the screen on game day.

Jason Tucker, receivers Coach

Everyone remembers Tucker as a distinguished receiving threat and they recall the devastating injury that ended his career, but in a lot of ways a successful early coaching career has gone under the radar.

Jumping straight into coaching after recovering from his broken neck, Tucker was responsible for the breakout of Fred Stamps’ career in Edmonton, got thousand-yard production from Weston Dressler, Taj Smith and Chris Getzlaf on the way to a Grey Cup victory in Saskatchewan. He was in charge of one of the league’s most underrated units in Montreal this past season. In between, Tucker spent two years on the staff of the Tennessee Titans, a real rarity for a guy who previously hadn’t cashed a cheque from south of the border in this century.

In my personal opinion, this is one of the more exciting hires to be announced this year. With Bryan Burnham, Lemar Durant and Shaq Johnson already in place, I expect Tucker to increase production and develop that number two receiver that B.C. desperately missed last season.

Beau Walker, running backs coach

Walker isn’t a name, and isn’t really coaching a position, that should generate a lot of hype, but this is a younger coach who I feel will provide an overall upgrade at his position.

Walker was the running backs coach in Ottawa last year, but prior to that was an offensive assistant for the Redblacks, Oregon State and Nebraska. Throughout his career, his focus has been on quarterback and offensive line play, providing a level of complete offensive understanding, specifically in pass protection, that I felt was missing last season.

The running back position is so instinctual that most of the coaching knowledge needs to be tailored to how the position interacts with others on the field. Walker can provide that, while potentially being groomed for bigger things.

Kelly Bates, offensive line coach

I have not been shy about my love for Bates and he deserves to be back in orange this season, even if being the only coach under contract likely helped that occur.

A Dan Dorazio follower and a lover of technique, I’m excited to see what Bates can do with a whole off-season and training camp worth of install. I fully expect a huge step forward in offensive line play this coming season, especially with him having previously worked in a Reilly-led, Maksymic-coached offence as Edmonton’s quality control coach in 2018.

Ryan Phillips, defensive backs coach

The only returning coach from DeVone Claybrooks’ staff who wasn’t under contract, Phillips’ performance earned him that honour. The defensive backs were the highlight of the B.C. Lions’ season in 2019 and showed tremendous growth throughout the year. As a first time coach fresh off retirement, you couldn’t expect any better.

Another underrated, yet important, benefit to Phillips’ return is that he gives fans a prominent recognizable name. While most of this staff would be more familiar to Redblack or Eskimo followers, Phillips is a B.C. fan favourite who will be key to community buy-in with the new staff.

Leroy Blugh, defensive line coach

Adding a Canadian Football Hall of Famer to any coaching staff can only be seen as a legitimizing hire, and Blugh has turned his incredible playing career into productive coaching stints at both the USports and CFL levels.

In all honesty, other than the 2015 season where they led the league in sacks, the production of Ottawa’s defensive line under Blugh has not been noteworthy, but a lot of that has to do with the position not being a priority for the Redblacks. Blugh hasn’t had many talented pass rushers put in front of him. (Seriously, name one star American defensive lineman from the Redblacks era — I’ll wait.), but he has made do on what has usually been a strong run defence during his tenure. It’s very clear that he works well within Campbell’s system.

What Blugh has shown an aptitude for is getting excellent production from Canadian defensive linemen. As a Redblack, he got big years from Justin Capicciotti, Keith Shologan, Zach Evans, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Ettore Lattanzio, Connor Williams and Michael Klassen. Many of those players have struggled to produce at the same level elsewhere. In college, Blugh also coached Junior Turner and Derek Wiggan early in their careers.

In recent years, the Lions have tried and failed to find a consistent Canadian presence on the defensive front. I have a feeling this might again be an emphasis with the new staff and Blugh will be its champion.

Travis Brown, linebackers coach

A coach so young that he played for the Redblacks, Brown has done a wonderful job with linebackers during his time with the Eskimos. In his two seasons, he has gotten production from established stars like Larry Dean and J.C. Sherritt, Canadian content like Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga and Adam Konar, and young players like Vontae Diggs.

Youth coupled with that successful of a resume is rare in the coaching world, so Brown should be seen as a welcome addition for a team who’s linebackers were less than stellar last season. Plus he grew up around the Birmingham Barracudas, so how could you not like him?

Danny O’Brien, coaching assistant

I was a proponent of this hire last season, when O’Brien was still taking the field for an injured Mike Reilly.

It was clear that O’Brien never had the physical tools to succeed as a professional quarterback, but he hung around as a tremendous team guy and a valuable set of eyes in the quarterback room. That just screams coach and I’m glad to see him doing what he should have been all along immediately following his retirement.

This will be a learning year for O’Brien, but he will be extremely valuable to Reilly and is an intelligent development hire by Campbell and Hervey.

The missing link?

One of the shrewdest moves Campbell made in announcing his staff this early on was actually an absence, not an addition.

Under the CFL’s football operations cap, teams are allowed to hire 11 coaches. As anyone with two hands could tell you, this staff is only made up of 10, including Campbell.

To some that may seem like a mistake or an oversight, but it actually gives them valuable flexibility ahead of the 2020 season and is a strategy that some of the league’s more successful teams have employed. Namely, it allows them to hire one more coach should someone they can’t pass up come suddenly available.

This exact situation occurred last off-season. Eskimos’ linebacker J.C. Sherritt retired late in the summer but Edmonton had filled their staff to the max and couldn’t hire the promising coach and local icon. Calgary had kept just such a reserve spot open and snapped up their rival’s player to be their linebackers coach. Sherritt is now coaching in the NCAA.

Maybe a prominent player who has been tagged as a prospective coach retires. Maybe a premier defensive coordinator comes available to make Campbell’s job easier. Maybe they feel the need to give extra help in one area or another. Maybe they discover a young coach to groom.

Whatever happens, the Lions have provided themselves with the ability to seize opportunities and be a player in the coaching market should the unexpected occur. That guarantees that Campbell will be putting forth his best possible staff come the season opener.

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JC Abbott
Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.