Preseason preview: eight rookies to watch in Lions vs. Riders

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/David Richard, File

The CFL preseason is a time of renewal and opportunity. Hundreds of new faces arrive in Canadian training camps eager to make their mark, battling it out for a handful of open jobs. For most, the stay will be brief. For others, it will be their first step toward a prosperous career.

With all preseason games now available to stream live, determining which unfamiliar names actually merit close attention is a daunting task for fans. As always, 3DownNation will have you covered with a cheat sheet of first-time CFL players to watch ahead of each exhibition contest.

On Saturday night, the B.C. Lions will be travelling with a taxi squad roster to Regina to take on a Saskatchewan Roughriders team resting most of their starters. Here are eight rookies I’ll be watching when the action kicks off.

B.C. Lions

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/John Munson

#27 Antonio Williams, RB, University of North Carolina

The frontrunner for the Lions’ open running back position, Williams famously rushed for 63 yards and two touchdowns in his NFL debut with the Buffalo Bills in the final week of the 2020 season. It marked his only NFL touches but the five-foot-10, 215-pound back flashed exactly the one-cut, downhill style that B.C. covets in their system. A battering of the Riders behind a makeshift offensive line would make that point indisputable.

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo

#73 Jevoni Robinson, REC, Barry College**

B.C. took a wild swing when they selected a 30-year-old Jamaican basketball player with the seventh overall pick in the 2023 Global Draft and Saturday could be his only real opportunity to show his worth. The six-foot-eight, 225-pound Robinson had an unsuccessful audition as a tight end with the Houston Texans in 2018 and has since spent time in the AAF, Spring League, and XFL without any meaningful production. He’ll have to prove he has the movement skills and understanding of the game to play in the slot if he has any hope of sticking with a team that has been quick to cut unpolished Global players.

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Rusty Costanza

#25 Christian Uphoff, DB, Illinois State University

Pigeonholed as a return specialist early in his college career, Uphoff only got one season of actual starting experience before the pandemic derailed his senior campaign. He flashed enough in that breakout year to earn an invite to the Senior Bowl and land with the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent. His skillset — quicker than fast with good instincts and in-the-box physicality — is perfectly suited to the SAM linebacker position he’ll audition for in Regina, an area where B.C. could use some depth behind the young Emmanuel Rugamba.

Photo courtesy: UAB Athletics

#68 Sidney Wells, OL, University of Alabama at Birmingham

There are jobs available to be won on the Lions’ offensive line and Wells offers the type of size you just can’t teach. The two-time All-Conference USA first-teamer stands six-foot-four and 330 pounds, but most importantly has an 83-inch wingspan that makes rounding the corner a nightmare for opponents. He thrived in a college running game similar to the Lions but will need to prove that his heavy feet won’t be a detriment in the pass-happy CFL.

Saskatchewan Roughriders

Photo: AP/Ben McKeown

#92 Bryan Cox Jr., DE, University of Florida

The son of the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker of the same name, Cox bounced around the NFL for six seasons with the Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts without ever really finding his niche. Saskatchewan has found recent success with those types of NFL journeymen up front — see Pete Robertson, Anthony Lanier, and Jonathan Woodard. The six-foot-three, 270-pound Cox is built like the latter and appears primed to have a similar impact.

Photo: AP/Gerald Herbert

#62 Tre’Mond Shorts, OL, Louisiana State University

The Riders’ hunt for a new starting tackle hasn’t quite gone according to plan, with several absences and injuries throwing a wrench into things. The late addition of Shorts could prove to be critical and he draws the start at right tackle after just 10 days with the team. A backup after transferring to LSU as a senior, Saskatchewan is hoping that the six-foot-four, 326-pound blocker can be the player he was at East Tennessee State: a two-time All-American and one of the most coveted offensive line transfers in the country.

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/John Raoux

#86 Kalija Lipscomb, REC, Vanderbilt University

A productive four-year player for the Commodores, Lipscomb racked up 2,356 yards and 22 touchdowns in college. The six-foot-one, 201-pounder was praised by NFL scouts for his route-running ability but knocked for his inability to get off press coverage. Fortunately for him, only one of those things really matters for a CFL slotback and he could thrive in the Canadian game.

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Brad Tollefson

#31 Kolby Harvell-Peel, LB, Oklahoma State University

Certain players are just built for the CFL and anyone who watched Oklahoma State while evaluating Canadian linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga quickly identified Harvell-Peel as one of those guys. The All-American strong safety was a playmaker in the box, playing the sort of hybrid linebacker role that is a full-time position north of the border. The six-foot, 222-pound defender’s physicality and zone coverage instincts could shine while taking snaps at weakside linebacker.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.