VANCOUVER — After stellar performances in the past two weeks, B.C. Lions running back Andrew Harris now has the difficult task of producing an encore.
But Harris, a 27-year-old Winnipeg native who was named the CFL’s top Canadian the past two weeks, will have no shortage of incentives Friday as the Lions (2-2) host the Blue Bombers (3-1) at B.C. Place Stadium.
“Playing the Bombers, (my) hometown team, is definitely one (game) that I circle on my calendar, for sure,” said Harris. “I know all my friends and family are definitely excited to watch me play the Bombers back home. But at the end of the day, though, it’s just another team, another challenge. I’m just looking forward to it that way.”
Following a slow start to the season, the Lions are looking to extend their win streak to three games, while the Blue Bombers attempt to overcome their first loss of the campaign. Harris, whose start mirrored that of his team, will attempt to excel again after accumulating 150 rushing and passing yards combined in a 41-5 drubbing of the Montreal Alouettes that followed 203 yards of total output in a victory over Saskatchewan.
“The mixture with me and (fellow tailback Stefan Logan) in the backfield is working out really great,” said Harris. “I think we’re throwing teams off with the two different skill sets, and it’s been great so far.”The performance against Saskatchewan also earned him CFL offensive player of the week honours.
Logan, who leads the league with 671 combined yards including return yardage, is relied upon largely for rushing. Meanwhile, Harris, second in the CFL in combined yards with 585 and first in the league in yards from scrimmage (518), excels at both rushing and receiving.
But it took a while for Harris to produce his lofty statistics. He only gained 63 yards on the ground in his first two games and 102 through the air. The two-game receiving total was misleading, though, because he did not get credit for a single catch in a game in Week 2 at Montreal.
“You’re definitely a little concerned (about the slow start to the season), but at the end of the day, it’s an 18-game season,” he said. “We have a lot of time to make adjustments.”
Harris often makes such comments as he strives to emphasize the team instead of himself. But according to B.C. coach Mike Benevides, he is demanding much more of himself this season.
After an all-star 2012 season in which he became the first Canadian to lead the CFL in yards from scrimmage (1,830) since Terry Evanshen in 1967, Harris struggled at times in 2013 while still producing a respectable 1,511 yards from scrimmage. In addition to striving to improve on the field, Harris, who was raised primarily by his mother, sought to help himself personally by meeting his father this year after a two-year search.
“I think he grew a lot personally last year as a person (and) as an athlete,” said Lions coach Mike Benevides. “Athletically, he had never faced challenges. Obviously, in his personal life he had. He had to learn how to overcome those (athletic issues.)”
Benevides said Harris, the father of a young daughter who lives with her mother in Winnipeg, has pushed himself to a different level of accountability.
“Last year was not what he wanted, not what we wanted,” said Benevides.
Lions punter Ricky Schmitt’s unexpected absence from Friday’s game was not desired, either. He is not due back until at least the next game after suffering knee and shoulder injuries in an accident that occurred while riding a motorized scooter that he uses to commute.
Schmitt, a 28-year-old who signed as a free agent after playing for Saskatchewan last season, has boosted B.C.’s punt and kick-off yardage while enabling veteran Paul McCallum, 44, to focus on field goals. With Schmitt out, McCallum will become a generalist again handle all three kicking duties.
He has not taken extensive praise that Schmitt has received from Benevides and others personally.
“It’s no secret that the guy’s got a strong leg,” said McCallum. “My leg, when I was his age, was probably the same, but I’m not his age anymore.”
McCallum has made good on eight of nine three-point attempts, the longest from 46 yards. But he will have to adjust to a new holder, backup quarterback John Beck, in place of the injured Schmitt.
Defensively, the Lions will attempt to hold off quarterback Drew Willy, who is thriving as a starter with Winnipeg after serving primarily as a backup with Saskatchewan in his first two CFL seasons. Willy ranks second in the CFL with a 62.4 completion percentage.
“We’ve spent our time studying Drew Willy and everything that he presents,” said Lions defensive back Ryan Phillips. “He’s got a strong arm. He’s a guy that doesn’t have to be set to throw the deep ball or anything like that.”
Willy, a 27-year-old who played collegiately at Buffalo, has completed 78-of-125 passes for 1,051 yards and five touchdowns against just three interceptions. But the Lions are hoping to capitalize on his limited experience as a starter.
“He’s still a young, inexperienced quarterback,” said Phillips. “We’ve got to try to make him do things and try to dictate the game, and make sure that he does things to give ourselves a chance to make plays.”
Offensively, Harris and company will try to excel against a defence that has displayed plenty of wrinkles while ranking in the top three of several statistical categories.
Lions quarterback Kevin Glenn credits new Bombers coach Mike O’Shea, a former standout CFL linebacker, for much of their defensive aggression.
“I don’t watch a whole lot of their offensive stuff, but their defence has kind of taken on that persona of how O’Shea played back when he played,” said Glenn.
At halftime, the Lions will retire the No. 81 jersey worn by retired all-time CFL leading receiver Geroy Simon, now working in Saskatchewan’s front office, while inducting him into their Ring of Honour.
B.C. rookie offensive Hunter Steward will make his second consecutive start at left tackle after impressing against Montreal.
Linebacker Adam Bighill and Beck are potential emergency replacements for McCallum.
With Schmitt out, veteran returner Tim Brown, who also plays running back, will draw into the lineup.
B.C. defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell will miss his second straight game with a rib injury.
Lions injured starting QB Travis Lulay (shoulder) expects to take part in limited activity in practice next week.