June 9, 2011

Mullin: Lions looking for homegrown talent

Jim Mullin

There’s a saying by some in football that you have to be “strong down the middle”: the sense that strength in the interior of the offensive line, middle linebacker and middle safety is the backbone to success.

One of the hallmarks of successful CFL offences of the past was having a one-two punch with non-import receivers who could produce yards down the middle.

Saskatchewan had Ray Elgaard and Jeff Fairholm, Calgary ran their inside passing game with Dave Sapunjis and Vince Danielsen and the Alouettes were particularly productive early in the ‘Aughts with Pat Woodcock and Ben Cahoon dominating the inside, depending on the formation.

Recently, the Roughriders have capitalized on Canadian talent in the receiving corps in nearly every position by developing talent fresh from the CIS.

The BC Lions would now seem to be in the business of developing and reclaiming talent to assemble a competitive receiving corps.

First to the reclamation project.

After a extinguishing a tryout with the BC Lions, Kamau Peterson officially inked a deal Wednesday with the team at training camp in Kamloops.

It has yet to be seen if Lions GM/Coach Wally Buono is doing this to push incumbent Paris Jackson or if he’s looking for that inside combination from past 12-man offences.

The comparisons between Peterson and nine-year veteran Jackson are long. Both struggled with injury last year. Both are veterans who can use their experience to make up for the mileage which their bodies have absorbed. Both have registered a pair of 1,000-yard seasons after working to establish themselves early in their careers, which seems a lifetime ago. Both are strong up the hash-marks and can provide blocking support when called upon.

It is yet to be determined if this will be a symbiotic relationship or the non-import version of Survivor with only one left standing on the roster.

The Lions boss is no stranger to Peterson. His CFL journey started under the tutelage of Buono in Calgary in 2000.

His potential and athleticism landed him a free agent deal in Winnipeg in 2004 where he was plagued with inconsistency and ping-ponged between Hamilton and the Bombers over a two-year span.

Then it was off to Edmonton where his star took off, capped by the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian Award in 2008 in a campaign where he had 101 receptions for a career-best 1,317 yards.

From 2007 through 2009 with the Eskimos, Peterson averaged 81 receptions per season. In his 11th season, the non-import who was born in Los Angeles but grew up in LaSalle, Ontario, has over 6,700 yards in receiving and has scored 28 touchdowns in 154 games.

The reason that Peterson, 32, became available on the free market was simple. The graduate of New Hampshire suffered an Achilles tendon tear in a 2010 season where he played only four games and caught six footballs.

At the end of the season it was determined that Peterson’s injury was a full blown Achilles rupture and the difficult road to rehab had begun. With the prospect of a less than 100 per cent receiver coming to camp, the Eskimos jettisoned him in April as part of Eric Tillman’s rebuilding program in the Klondike City. Peterson wasn’t willing to take a pay cut in Edmonton, but one has to measure that Buono obtained him at a less than peak price.

When contract discussions started in May, Buono already seemed determined to find a spot on the roster for Peterson. If the receiver wasn’t ready to compete, the coach contemplated signing him three or four weeks into the season much in the same fashion he signed Derrick Armstrong a few games into last year’s campaign.

During his tryout period, Peterson ran a series of stopwatch-timed 40-yard dashes which clocked anywhere between 4.65 to 4.72.

As for Jackson, the nine-year veteran battled through the result of an off-season knee surgery in 2010, yet still managed to dress for all 18 games. He still managed 61 receptions for 758 yards, with only one TD after a slow start.

It was apparent to many who watched Jackson in 2010 that there were times when he was running routes like he had a piano on his back. That weight was actually on his repaired knee in the form of a fluid buildup.

Jackson is on the deferred injury list, which allows him to attend camp but not be a “counter” on the roster list of 68. Come the June 17 deadline, he’ll have to be cleared by doctors and a roster spot will have to open for him at the expense of a camp hopeful.

“I’m feeling more explosive than I have for a year and a bit,” Jackson told the Vancouver Province. “The swelling is gone and I’m just waiting to get clearance from the doctors.”

The goal for Jackson isn’t getting reps in the pre-season as much as it is getting a start in their first regular season game in Montreal.

Now to what’s in the developing stage.

There are two holdover sophomore non-import receivers who intend to make an impact this season. Bishop’s Gaiters grad Shawn Gore and ex-St. FX X-men Akeem Foster both started games in 2010 under different conditions.

Gore didn’t attend Lions camp last year because he was one of the final cuts out of the Green Bay Packers camp. The second round pick in 2010 was slowly worked into the lineup, and for those who were paying attention, witnessed just what kind of speed he had in a game situation on down-field pursuit on special teams later in the season. The 24 year-old is a good bet to fill the spot at the wide-side wideout, previously occupied by veteran O’Neil Wilson who was released in the off-season.

Foster, who was also part of the 2010 class – which had five players dress last year – has shown the speed and route running required, but like many younger receivers is working on developing his level of confidence when the pads start to pop.

Not to be discounted from that homebrew mix is Harvard’s Marco Iannuzzi, who was the Lions first pick in this year’s draft. He’s more of a project at this early stage. He’s even getting camp reps at returner. Given that CJFL Vancouver Island Raider grad Andrew Harris was part of the return game in 2010, there may be as much opportunity for Iannuzzi to see game time in that role, as there is as a receiver.