In training camp, hope springs eternal.
From the reigning champions to the perennial bottom feeder, every football team enters camp with dreams of a fresh start and visions of grandeur. It’s the time of year when the failures of the past are washed away, replaced with aspirations of the future.
That should be music to the ears of the B.C. Lions offensive line.
If you were to look across the CFL in 2019, you’d be hard-pressed to find a much more maligned group. After all, it was their play that most obviously shattered the lofty hopes of Grey Cup contention for the last version of the Lions. What good is the acquisition of a MOP caliber quarterback if he spend the bulk of his time staring at the domed roof of B.C. Place?
For the most part, the core of that struggling Lions line remains in place but after 18 months of time off, hope has once again returned to the trenches.
“We learned a lot from 2019 and we hope to use that like a chip on our shoulders, but this is a new year,” guard Sukh Chungh told the media before another practice in the Kamloops smoke.
“This is another opportunity to go out there and showcase our talents. To bring what this O-line has been trying to bring to the table and create an identity for ourselves.”
Last year, the Lions identity up front was the whopping 58 sacks they allowed and a disastrous 1-10 start to the season. For the first half of the year, quarterback Michael Reilly found himself on the ground more than four times per game.
It was an untenable situation that was impossible to win with, but things began to shift after offensive line coach Bryan Chiu was fired and former Lions lineman Kelly Bates was brought in to replace him. The team only allowed 15 sacks in his eight games at the helm, far from perfection, but enough to justify the optimism heading in to 2021.
Recalling those early days, Bates credits the receptiveness and work ethic of the men in the offensive line room for creating the turnaround.
“They knew it wasn’t going the way they wanted it to and they were open to change, open to doing things differently. They could have very well just shut me out when I came in and they didn’t,” he said. “There’s no one way to do things. There’s many different ways to get it done and they were open to a different way.”
The players, on the other hand, give Bates much more credit. The former head coach of Simon Fraser University has earned a reputation as a detailed teacher and excellent communicator.
“He takes a lot of pride in what he does and it’s nice having a guy like that around. Working with Coach Bates has been awesome because of his passion for the game and how he’s able to communicate with us,” Chungh said.
“Being a player himself in the past, he’s been able to communicate the right way to his players what he’s coaching and we’re just all trying to buy into his teaching ways.”
That style is ripped wholesale from a Lions legend, long-time offensive line coach Dan Dorazio. The four-time Grey Cup champion taught Bates the principles he now uses in an era when the Lions were viewed as the CFL’s best team in the trenches and they now lay a foundation for the franchise’s future success.
“I mentored under a man in Dan Dorazio who was very detailed in the way he prepared his men and that’s the way I’ve learned to prepare. You don’t accept less than those details you’re asking for,” Bates stressed.
The Lions’ faith in Bates as the spiritual successor to Dorazio that has them hopeful for a offensive line resurgence despite the return of several big name players who posted disappointing 2019 seasons, most notably Chungh.
The homegrown guard was made a high-priced free agent signing after a spectacular tenure in Winnipeg, but fell flat out of the gate. He’ll retain his role at right guard in 2021, as will veteran Hunter Steward on the left side, after spending much of the last season flipping through positions. Joel Figueroa should be back to full health at the left tackle spot and former first round pick Peter Godber will finally get his shot at center after losing two years to injury. That leaves the right book-end for top free agent signing Ryker Mathews, who has waited two years to get his shot with what he views as a gifted Lions group.
“I think all our changes are going to make us better. Our squad here is awesome,” Mathews said early in camp. “I think we’re an All-Star based team and we’ve got a lot of good players.”
Delivering upon the promise of that talent is the burden that Bates will bear, but his charges are already feeling liberated. An emphasis on the details doesn’t mean the Lions are overloaded with complexity and as chemistry builds with new pieces like Matthews, Chungh believes the group is “playing fast” courtesy of some easy instructions.
“Don’t think too much, make simple calls and fly around out there. Make mistakes at a hundred miles per hour and we’ll be able to correct it in film if everyone’s confidently doing what they’re supposed to,” he explained.
The Lions offensive line made mistakes in a lot of ways in 2019, but confidently was never one of them.