Lions’ starters strike early, backups smother Elks: eight thoughts on the preseason finale

Photo courtesy: Jeff Vinnick/B.C. Lions

As was expected, the B.C. Lions starting unit took care of business on Friday night against a scraggly crew of backups from the Edmonton Elks, securing a 26-9 victory before packing it in early.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Stanback state of mind

If you wanted an indication that the Lions’ mentality has changed heading into 2024, look no further than their opening drive of this game. With nearly the entire starting offence on the field, coordinator Jordan Maksymic fed prized free agent running back William Stanback six times for 20 yards on the first series, culminating in a short touchdown run.

Not everything about the B.C. running game looked pretty in its first real test, as was to be expected. But Stanback flashed exactly the physicality that this team was hoping to add when he bounced a 10-yard run off the left side of the line and savagely bulldozed a would-be Elks tackler to put his team near the goal line. After finishing the job a few plays later, he was given just three more touches for 10 additional yards before being shut down for the evening.

There were plenty of the usual aerial fireworks from the Lions’ offence as well, with Vernon Adams Jr. looking sharp through just over a quarter and a half of action. He threw deep regularly, feeding Canadian Justin McInnis over the middle on a couple of occasions and ending his night with a world-class touchdown toss to Alexander Hollins on a corner route. That aspect of the playbook isn’t going away any time soon but balance will be the emphasis this year.

B.C. signed Stanback because they want to go back to being a fast, physical, downhill football team. Incumbent Taquan Mizzell was axed early because he wouldn’t alter his frame to meet that new commandment. Backups Jordan Terrell and Percy Agyei-Obese each showed the ability to slash north-south, though only one of the pair is likely to make the practice roster.

It remains to be seen if B.C. has the horses up front to generate a Grey Cup calibre ground game but they are certainly going to try.

Let’s try this again

If last Saturday raised questions about the quality of B.C.’s quarterback depth, the final preseason contest set off alarm bells

Jake Dolegala looked horrific in his first preseason outing as a Leo, going one-of-seven for just eight yards. This week’s stat line was heftier — 10-of-16 for 118 yards and a touchdown — but also included a pair of bad interceptions, of which there should have been more.

Initially, it seemed as if the vertically endowed pivot was trying to single-handedly win Elks’ defensive back Kordell Jackson a job. With pressure in his face, he rushed an underthrown pass right into the arms of the waiting rookie for his first turnover. The very next series should have ended even worse, with an ill-advised throw in the direction of Fulgham being dropped by Jackson instead of returned for a pick-six.

Dolegala did seem to find some rhythm after that jump scare, taking off on a giraffe-like scamper to set up a field goal and tossing a dart to Terry Williams for a second-quarter TD. However, his night ended as it began with an inexplicable floater into the arms of Edmonton’s Kyle Cass.

The former Rider took full responsibility for those mistakes after the game, though head coach Rick Campbell gave him a potential out by suggesting not every receiver was at the correct depth. Either way, it wasn’t a performance that generated much confidence, particularly with youngster Chase Brice struggling to generate points in the second half and throwing an interception of his own.

I’m certainly not suggesting that there should be an overhaul of the Lions’ QB room — Dolegala is still their best backup option right now. However, I’d be unsettled enough if I were a member of the team’s management to keep my Rolodex handy and offer only a very short leash if Vernon Adams Jr. ever goes down.

Double trouble

Friday was marked by some exciting Lions’ debuts, including Stanback, Christian Covington, Ciante Evans, and Pete Robertson. However, with veterans of that magnitude never overexerting themselves in the preseason, my focus was supposed to be on the two new starters in the receiving corps: Ayden Eberhardt and Travis Fulgham.

Unfortunately, those plans were spoiled prior to kickoff when Eberhardt, the more familiar of the two, tweaked a pre-existing ankle injury in warmups and was held out for precautionary reasons. The unheralded pass catcher from Wyoming dominated the preseason last year and spot started for two regular-season games, catching five passes for 69 yards. The team appears fully invested in giving him a full-time opportunity in year two and saw no reason to put him in harm’s way for either preseason contest.

Fulgham did get a chance to play and had a quieter evening than hoped, catching two of the four passes thrown his way for 40 yards. It was hardly a star-making turn but his 32-yard catch late in the first half was a nice sign of life and he drew an illegal contact penalty to set up the team’s last touchdown. Add that to rave reviews in training camp and his spot is unlikely to be in jeopardy.

The NFL practice roster journeyman came out of nowhere to catch 38 passes for a team-high 539 yards and four touchdowns with the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2020 season. He faded into obscurity immediately afterward but is now expected to have an immediate impact on the Lions’ offence.

If he can’t live up to those expectations, the team may struggle in the early going as they look to replace the likes of Dominique Rhymes, Lucky Whitehead, and — temporarily — Keon Hatcher.

Unconventional CanCon

Defensive coordinator Ryan Phillips has made mixing and matching his secondary a priority throughout training camp and we saw several iterations of that on Friday.

Conventional wisdom and a pair of preseason starts would suggest that Jordan Perryman has the edge at becoming the team’s new field cornerback, at least until T.J. Lee returns from the Achilles injury he suffered in the West Final. The former Washington Husky looked sharp throughout this game, notching two tackles, but it was another potential combination that has me most intrigued.

Presumed starting safety Adrian Greene has been getting a long look at corner, where he once excelled for Saint Mary’s University. It may be preseason but the Canadian looks completely at home in that spot and has the length you love on the outside. The kick to the perimeter would also open up a starting spot for reclamation project Patrice Rene, who has earned himself a job at safety with exceptional play through two exhibition contests.

It’s very rare for CFL teams to start two Canadians in the secondary, primarily because they don’t have the depth to maintain it in the event of injury. That is not the case for the Lions, who may have the best group of homegrown defensive backs I’ve ever seen. Third-round rookie Cristophe Beaulieu continues to look like a legitimate player at halfback, while backup cornerback Siriman Harrison Bagayogo and third-string safety Charlie Ringland are high-upside prospects at their respective positions who are capable of stepping in. The fact that both of those players could be on the bubble right now speaks to this team’s absurd depth.

I think the likeliest scenario still has Perryman with the starting unit in Week 1 but don’t be surprised if you see this Canadian-heavy lineup before the year is over. Campbell insists he’s willing to play more than the required amount of Nationals this year and his track record proves he’ll do it.

Knevel again

The most contentious battle still remaining on the Lions’ roster is at left guard, where incumbent Canadian David Knevel got the start over veteran American Chris Schleuger. It’s now or never for the Brantford native, who will celebrate his 30th birthday before the end of the season.

I’ve been a regular critic of Knevel dating back to his draft year in 2018 and nothing he accomplished while starting over the second half of last season has altered my skepticism. With that said, linemen often find their form later in their careers and his deficiencies will be more easily hidden in a downhill rushing attack led by Stanback.

The latter was true on Friday, with Knevel looking lumbering but capable with the top unit. My concerns are mostly with his lack of bend and mobility as a pass protector, which wasn’t tested much against Edmonton’s backups. Using strictly the eyeball test without the benefit of tape study, I thought Schleuger looked more fluid and effective while working throughout the second half.

While some might assume a ratio flip on the offensive line would require the aforementioned dual National scenario in the secondary, B.C.’s remarkable depth means they don’t need a Canadian at either spot. The best man will win both jobs — in this case, I feel it should be the fifth-year American.

Ultimately, this job will go to 2024 first-round pick George Una at some point in the future and he made an impressive block on a second-half run to keep confidence high. For now, the Lions need a consistent and physical placeholder who won’t be left in the dust by athletic interior pass rushers. For a year, Schleuger can fit that bill.

Berry picking

Eberhardt’s pre-game bow out opened up an opportunity for someone else with the first team and rookie receiver Stanley Berryhill III seized it with both hands. The Arizona product was having a good training camp but left an impression in this game which should secure him at least a spot on the practice roster.

It started inauspiciously for the 25-year-old, as he dropped a deep ball from VA on the opening drive which could have taken the Lions out of their own end. The pass was slightly behind and shielded by the defender until the last moment, causing a tough adjustment as Berryhill was falling to the turf, but ultimately the ball still bounced off his chest.

That was quickly forgotten though, as he nearly broke a punt return down the right sideline early in the second quarter and was a Jake Julien chop tackle away from paydirt. He followed that up with a legitimate catch-of-the-year candidate, laying out horizontally for a ridiculous grab that was initially ruled incomplete before being changed. He finished with four catches for 50 yards but felt much more impactful than that.

Devin Ravenel also had a productive second half, posting three catches for 45 yards, and Jalen Sample made an impressive 20-yard catch over the middle late in the game, but no player on either side of the ball helped themselves more than Berryhill.

Pride still matters

The second half of this game was basically an afterthought, as an offence which slowed under Dolegala nearly stalled out under Brice. The door was very much open for the Elks’ C-squad, led by Last Chance U QB Malik Henry, to stage a cheeky preseason comeback, but the Lions’ defence saw to it that that would not occur.

After allowing the Green and Gold to march the field in the third quarter, B.C. made three consecutive stops within their own three-yard line to force a turnover on downs. The most impressive of the plays may have been when newcomer defensive tackle Demetrius Taylor ripped through the Edmonton offensive line like rice paper to stop short-yardage pivot Cole McDonald by himself, though that was called back because he lined up offside by a finger. The team combined for three more gutsy stops on a series that they easily could have written off as lost and it all but secured the win.

Ironically, the only touchdown for the Elks came against the Lions’ first-team defence in the opening frame. Dillon Mitchell got behind all-star cornerback Garry Peters, who did not allow a TD in coverage all of last year, for the score. Fortunately, this one won’t besmirch his flawless record.

Chasing 50

B.C. will have the unenviable task of making final roster cuts by 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, before shifting their focus to the season opener on June 9 in Toronto. However, many fans are already eagerly casting their attention one week further into the future, when the team will commence their home slate against the Calgary Stampeders on June 15.

After tapping rap icon 50 Cent for the annual pre-game kickoff concert, the Lions sold more than 45,000 tickets for the event and opened up the entirety of the upper bowl. With two weeks to go, a crowd of more than 50,000 is well within reach — the highest attendance for a Lions’ regular-season game since BC Place reopened in 2011.

After coming in hot in his first season as owner, Amar Doman has continued to raise the stakes year after year. With the Grey Cup in town this November, he’s pulling out all the stops to pack the stadium. The next phase of that will come on Monday, when the team announces the Grey Cup halftime show months earlier than typical hosts — suggesting that this musical act could be even more impressive Fiddy.

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.