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He never lacked skill but what has changed this year for B.C. Lions’ wide receiver Shawn Gore is how he thinks the game.
On a team stacked with potential Hall-of-Famers, Gore is among the next generation of CFL stars. The 25-year-old from Toronto has always had the size and speed to be a threat. Now he’s learning to use his brain.
“It’s like a chess game,” explained the affable Bishop’s graduate.
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With star receivers Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce out with injuries, Gore stepped up to the tune of 235 yards over his last four games, finishing the season as the Lions’ leading receiver with 720 yards.
“It’s how you retain information throughout the game.
“If you are forgetting everything that went on in the first quarter about coverages, different guys, then you’re not getting any better in the fourth. I pay attention to the little things, like how the defence might play on a certain play.”
With slotbacks Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce both sidelined with injuries down the stretch, Gore ended the regular season as the Lions’ leading receiver with 61 catches for 720 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers were below his total of 60 catches for 836 yards last season.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story. The third-year player was hampered by a hamstring injury early in the season. When he did play, Gore showed a confidence he lacked last year.
“I don’t think I’m more confident,” Gore said. “I think my confidence is better placed.”
At times last season Gore tried too hard. He was ten gallons of energy squeezed into a seven-gallon container.
”It was a little too much excitement, a little too much energy,” he said. “I was going too hard all the time.
“This year the game has slowed down. I understand what is happening. I don’t punch it. I don’t force the issue. I let it come to me, I let it open up.”
At six-foot and 198 pounds Gore makes a big target. He has strong hands and blazing speed. Having the tools is one thing. Making the best use of them is the challenge.
“He is learning to run the routes properly,” said general manager Wally Buono. “People know he’s fast but it’s not always about the speed.
“It’s about getting open. He’s getting better at that. He’s learning to put himself in a position where he protects the ball.”
Gore also is learning patience can be a weapon.
“I’m watching what the defence is doing, knowing where the holes will be, instead of running through it because I want the ball so bad,” he said.
“That’s a learning experience.”
Drafted 10th overall in 2010, Gore joined the Lions midway through the season after a tryout with the Green Bay Packers. He appeared in eight games, mostly on special teams.
Last year he stepped into a starting role. His potential was obvious as he finished second among Lions receivers, but at times Gore seemed to fight the ball.
“He had a bit of a struggle early on,” said quarterback Travis Lulay. “You learn a lot about a guy when stuff like that happens.
“He was mentally tough enough to battle through it. You could see when he got to training camp this year he was like a veteran receiver compared to the year before. It was like night and day.”
Both Gore and Lulay stayed in Vancouver during the winter. They spent plenty of time working out together.
What Lulay appreciates most is Gore’s hunger to improve.
“He’s not easily satisfied,” Lulay said. “He knows he can continue to get better.
“He’s very humble about his approach to the game. When you understand how much room there is for improvement you keep working on one little thing at a time. Over time, it all starts coming together. We’ve started to see that with Shawn.”
The Lions finished the season with a 13-5 record, the best in the CFL. The defending Grey Cup champions will have the week off waiting to play either the Calgary Stampeders or Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Nov. 18 Western Final at B.C. Place Stadium.
There’s always a debate about the importance of the playoff bye. The team with the week off says it gives them a chance to rest and mend injuries. The teams playing in the Semi-Final argue they’d rather not lose the momentum.
Since 2000 the team that finished first in the West has gone on the Grey Cup seven times.
Offensive lineman Ben Archibald has been on both sides of that coin. He was on the Lions’ team that finished first West last year, then beat Edmonton to advance to the Grey Cup.
In 2010 he was part of a Calgary team that led the West with a 13-5 record but lost to Saskatchewan in the final.
“That was brutal,” said Archibald. “I learned something from that, the attitude you have to have.
“Playing the West Final at home, there is no guarantee. The team that is coming in is going to come in with momentum. You can’t sit back and relax during your week off. You have to still apply yourself.”
Gore believes the week off will benefit the Lions.
“You can refocus, use it as a reset button,” he said. “When you come back, you come back hard and strong.”