The B.C. Lions didn’t bring their A-squad to Regina for their exhibition opener. In fact, most of the B-squad stayed home, too. Still, the Leos’ odd assortment of rookies and bubble players put together an entertaining performance against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, losing 30-27 on Saturday night.
There will be no earth-shattering takeaways from this particular contest, but even writers need preseason reps. Here are my thoughts on the game.
Battle of the backs
For a team whose biggest open competition is at running back, the Lions didn’t run the ball nearly as much as I expected in this game and had very little success on the ground overall. Still, head coach Rick Campbell said post-game that he got enough of a look at each of his ball carriers to make a fair assessment.
Antonio Williams certainly didn’t relinquish his frontrunner status, keeping it between the tackles for 23 yards on six carries. However, it was five-foot-11, 185-pound scatback Taquan Mizzell who impressed me the most in live action, looking dangerous almost every time he touched the ball.
The man they call “Smoke” was a shoelace tackle away from busting his first carry of the game and showed he could contribute out of the backfield or as a returner. His final rushing statline — six carries for 16 yards — was underwhelming, but those numbers were deflated by three meaningless carries into the teeth of the defence in the dying seconds.
The Lions found success executing a simple inside run scheme with James Butler and Antonio Williams’ physical style is built to excel in that system. Mizzell, however, has a skill set that could truly elevate an offence. The question is, do the Lions have an athletic enough offensive line to maximize it?
Judd not lest ye be judged
Lions fans should be very pleased with the performance of their veteran backups, as Dominique Davis and Dane Evans each looked comfortable while flip-flopping back and forth in their debuts.
The 33-year-old Davis had a few mental errors, namely a bad interception in the third quarter, but delivered the throw of the night with a 41-yard dime to Bryson Daughtry. Evans, meanwhile, looked like the best version of himself and was pinpoint efficient on both touchdown drives he led.
While that might reassure those concerned about Vernon Adams Jr.’s reputation for inconsistency, I’m not a fan of how the team has managed their QB room this offseason. Success in this league requires teams to have a franchise guy, a starting-calibre backup, and the next guy waiting in the wings. B.C. has fallen woefully short in the latter category.
Judd Erickson, a tryout camp signee from the University of San Diego, is the lone youngster in training camp — an eyebrow-raising decision in and of itself. Worse, he was able to throw just four passes in a rushed fourth quarter, while the Lions got second and third looks at guys that are well-established quantities in the CFL.
I would have liked to see more young blood in Kamloops or, at the very least, Erickson to get an extended look with the rookie group this week to judge his abilities. Instead, B.C. appears to be thinking short-term at the position and that could come back to haunt them in an era where quality quarterbacks are harder to recruit than ever before.
Playing with Hardt
With all the receiving talent the team left at home, it is hard to imagine that any of the pass catchers who made the trek to Regina will be making an early impact for this team. Nevertheless, practice roster opportunities were up for grabs and one player really separated himself — just not the one I expected.
Ayden Eberhardt was never more than a role player at Wyoming, catching just 47 passes for 722 yards and two touchdowns in 42 games. Despite that pedestrian resume, he was the best player on the field for the Lions on Saturday, hauling in six passes for 104 yards while chipping in as a returner.
There is very little that makes sense about Eberhardt’s performance. He isn’t overly large at six-foot-two and 195 pounds, nor is he particularly fast. Yet every time a ball came his way he seemed to be open for a spectacular, twisting catch.
“He’s one of the guys since we got up in Kamloops, on day one of rookie camp, that just caught my eye,” Dane Evans said post-game, pointing to Eberhardt’s experience as a high school quarterback as the reason for his success.
“When you have a guy like that, that can see the game not just as ‘I’m the Y receiver or the W’ but when he can see the whole picture and understands the offence and where to be open and, most importantly, when to be open, I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
Given that the Loveland, Col. native’s greatest strength in college was as a gunner on kick coverage, it will be difficult for the Lions not to find a depth spot for him come cutdown day.
At the pleasure of the President
The Lions raided the province of Saskatchewan in the 2022 CFL Draft, picking three players from the U of S Huskies. Their biggest steal came from the University of Regina, however, when they snagged linebacker Ryder Varga at the end of the third round.
The six-foot-three, 230-pound defender was only available that late because he had declared his intention to return to school and finish his engineering degree. B.C. was happy to wait a year and watch as their prospect went on to win the President’s Trophy as Canada’s best defensive player.
Playing in his college stadium in front of dozens of friends and family, Varga looked every bit as good in this game as he did with the Rams. He collected three defensive tackles and another on special teams, but inadvertently caused a Riders’ touchdown after he was called for a rather soft pyramiding penalty on a Kaare Vedvik field goal. In response, he picked off Mason Fine on the next series and raced it back for a touchdown of his own.
“I think that’s my first pick-six like ever, at any level, so it was pretty special,” Varga chuckled when asked about his performance, noting he never even considered keeping the touchdown ball.
“I don’t even know where it went. I flicked it away.”
I was extremely critical of the Lions’ decision to spend their first-round pick in the 2023 Global Draft on 30-year-old Jamaican basketball player Jevoni Robinson. Given his age, the awkward positional fit of a tight end in the CFL, and his lack of production during stints in the NFL, AAF, TSL, and XFL, he would not have been on my board.
However, the six-foot-eight, 225-pound big man proved to be the size mismatch against Saskatchewan that the team hoped for when selecting him. Though he committed the cardinal sin of fumbling while reaching for extra yardage, he also hauled in a touchdown and caught all five passes thrown his way for 44 yards. Defensive backs seemed helpless to defeat his length.
I’ll remain skeptical of Robinson until I see him do it against elite competition, but he exceeded my expectations. There may still be a Disney movie in his future.
The Lions got some very solid play from their front seven, with defensive tackle Marcus Moore and linebacker Brooks Parker really standing out. The team still surrendered 375 yards of net offence though, in large part due to some sloppy tackling on inside runs and a handful of big busts in the secondary.
“We gave up too many deep balls,” Campbell pointed out post-game. “Too many that were contested balls, that were 50/50 balls that we want to make more plays on.”
Virtually every Lions defensive back found himself victimized at some point. Jaylon McClain-Sapp committed one bad pass interference penalty and was awfully close on a few others. Canadian rookie Siriman Harrison Bagayogo got beat on one touchdown despite tight coverage. Riders’ receiver Mitch Picton, never noted for his speed, found the end zone twice late with space and left Josh Flowers floundering on the game-winner.
Never before in my life have I watched long-snapping as closely as I did on Saturday, as the Lions decided to move on from veteran Tanner Doll and not sign a replacement this offseason.
Second-year defensive lineman Riley Pickett appears to be the man the team has pegged to take over the job. He seemed comfortable in his first game, though punter Stefan Flintoft bailed him out by corralling a bad snap and still getting the hold down for a third-quarter field goal.
B.C. is gambling big time by rolling with an inexperienced snapper who hasn’t previously specialized at the position. Much like Marvel villain Thanos and his Infinity Gauntlet, a single bad snap can devastate a CFL team’s season if it happens at the wrong moment.
Earn your keep
Special teams are how most young players will earn their way onto a roster and I thought there were a few real standouts in Regina.
Second-year Canadian defensive end Josh Archibald got the start off the edge, but impressed me most by hustling down the field and making spectacular open-field tackles on each of the game’s first two kicks. Global linebacker Maxime Rouyer was only credited with one takedown but was violent shedding blocks and constantly in the vicinity. Canadian defensive back Adrian Greene was the other player with multiple tackles and should see an increased role in year two.
The CFL packed a lot of corporate buzzwords into their announcement of the new LiveStats software provided by Genius Sports but the technology has failed to live up to its name.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the oft-forgotten statisticians who are struggling to learn and execute a new system on the fly. But, in the league’s own words, we were promised “live play-by-play data” right from the start of the preseason. So far, all we’ve gotten are post-game PDFs of inconsistent reliability posted on the website and no accessible box score on the increasingly buggy game tracker.
That’s simply unacceptable in modern professional sports and it is made worse by the fact the CFL’s pre-existing system was already delivering live statistics to fans. For all pomp and circumstance of their press release, it isn’t immediately clear what the new system will bring to the table other than packaging the end results differently for betting purposes.
So far, the product for fans has only deteriorated. If issues persist into the regular season, the league will have a serious problem on their hands.
If this game felt anti-climactic despite the tight score, you’d be right. The Lions did not attempt to mount a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter and head coach Rick Campbell was frank about why after the game.
“It was a unique situation at the end there. There was a big storm coming in and that’s why we ran the ball three times at the end because they were going to make us finish the game and we didn’t want to come into the locker room for a couple hours,” he said.
“It’s a totally unique situation. Our players know that, too. Obviously, would never happen unless it was a preseason game.”
The coach said he viewed the game as a win during his locker room speech, which might be pushing the bounds of reality a little. Still, consider us all grateful we didn’t have to twiddle our thumbs all night for a couple of extra minutes of preseason action.