June 22, 2011

Mullin: Time for Lions to impress Buono

Jim Mullin

Tonight on Empire Field, the BC Lions will finally emerge from their media imposed witness protection program.

You see, while the Leos were toiling in training camp four hours up the road in Kamloops, a certain hockey team absorbed every degree of the sports spotlight in Vancouver.

Even as the Lions were putting the finishing touches on a 24-0 pre-season win in Calgary, most eyes were trained on televised images of mayhem emanating from the downtown core of Terminal City.

After the nonsense provided by the events of last Wednesday, exactly one week later BC sports fans will have the opportunity to focus on something more positive as the Lions host the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the final test drive for players on the bubble.

There are three positional battles which leap out from the depth chart for BC.

Make no mistake, the 2011 BC Lions are Travis Lulay’s team to lead from the quarterback position. An able and fully healthy Jarious Jackson will reprise his role as backup. But after that things get interesting.

The Lions brought six pivots to camp this year, which was likely an indicator of Wally Buono’s fear of Lulay’s future development taking him back to the NFL.

Matt Johnson and Kevin Riley – who was highly recommended by his Cal State coach and former CFL QB Jeff Tedford – were early cuts.

That left incumbent third-stringer Mike Reilly and multi-dimensional athlete Corey Leonard to battle for the final position on the roster. Buono will likely not retain a fourth-string QB early in the season.

Reilly was added to the Lions roster in late July of last year, after making four stops around the NFL in little over a year. Reilly was also a runner-up for the Harlon Hill Trophy which is presented to top Division II football player as a senior.

He holds the NCAA all-divisions record with at least one touchdown pass in all 46 career games.

Reilly impressed the Lions coaching staff in practice with his ability to quickly study and learn the nuances of the Canadian game last year. He arrived at camp 25 pounds heavier after extensive training, now tipping the scales at 230 lbs. on his 6’3″ frame.

Reilly is getting pushed by Leonard, who was added to the Lions roster in late April.

Leonard was a four-year starter at Arkansas State, and played his last season of competitive football late in 2009 after sustaining a college career-ending knee injury.

“I was a dual threat [passing and running] guy in college, and the injury slowed me down a little bit,” Leonard explained to the Vancouver Sun.

“I wasn’t mobile enough by the time the NFL draft came along, so I took a year off to focus and train and it’s worked out great. My times are faster than they were in college and I’m in better shape.”

The question the Lions brain trust will likely be asking themselves isn’t who the better QB is today, it’s who could most likely develop into a starter over the next few seasons.

The question of “now” applies in two other battles.

Last week
we covered the situation with the non-import receivers. Rookie Dobson Collins looked great in Kamloops but had some growing pains at boundary side wide out against the Stampeders. Collins has so far elbowed-out Nick Moore out that wide out spot. Moore – the brother of New Orleans Saints returner Lance Moore – has played in three different positions in the BC offensive scheme.

Steven Black is the returning receiver to the slot, as the team hopes it can find an answer to the departure of Emmanuel Arceneaux who left for the Minnesota Vikings.

Oh, and we shouldn’t have to tell you that Geroy Simon’s starting position is carved in stone into the depth chart.

The Lions will go with a 3-4 defensive front, meaning that there will likely be some significant cuts. Aaron Hunt, Keron Williams, Brent Johnson and Eric Taylor will all be part of a four-man rotation, but who will back them up?

Rookie Rajon Henley has been drawing rave reviews from teammates and coaches alike. James Bryant and returning defensive tackle Kalif Mitchell are also in the mix.

With the roster standing at 60, Buono is hoping to make the cuts by Thursday or Friday in preparation for their June 30 regular season opener against the Alouettes in Montreal.

“With our last pre-season game at home, we are definitely looking at getting our veterans more playing time to make sure they are prepared for the start of the regular season,” Buono said.