TORONTO — Mike Benevides’ quest for a fourth Grey Cup ring will be so much different than his previous three.
The 44-year-old Toronto native heads into his first training camp as a CFL head coach, taking over the B.C. Lions job when veteran Wally Buono stepped down from the post shortly after the club’s Grey Cup victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Not only must Benevides shoulder the weight of expectation of a team looking to repeat, he also faces trying to replace the winningest coach in league history.
While following Buono – who amassed 254 career wins and remains the club’s GM – would seem to be a daunting task, Benevides has coached with Buono since their days in Calgary in 2000 and says that relationship has helped him ease into his new position and the spotlight as the CFL’s only Canadian-born head coach.
“From the outside looking in it would be extremely difficult if I did not have a relationship with him,” Benevides said. “If I looked at it that way, it would be impossible.
“There will never be another Wally Buono, there will never be anybody to win that many games again as long as this league is around. I can only be myself.”
Benevides served as B.C.’s defensive co-ordinator last season and inherits a veteran-laden team led by quarterback Travis Lulay, the CFL’s outstanding player last season. Benevides, a Toronto native, is also the league’s only Canadian-born head coach and says his job description at the Lions’ camp differs from when he was an assistant.
“I think a lot of it early on is making sure all the logistics are right and loose ends are tied up so we have a smooth transition to get our camp started,” he said. “After that, it’s keeping a clear eye on all the evaluations and not just on defence.
“At the same time there’s making sure my impression is on all phases of the football team. It’s a little different in the sense that it’s a lot of logistics and making sure everything runs smoothly and setting up schedules as I see it and after that it’s messaging what I want from the guys and how hard we should practice.”
With Buono’s resignation, Calgary’s John Hufnagel and Montreal’s Marc Trestman – both entering their fifth CFL season – are now the league’s longest-tenured head coaches.
Saskatchewan coach Corey Chamblin, who like Benevides is entering his first season as a CFL head coach, got some good news Thursday as top draft pick Ben Heenan signed a contract that allowed him to report to the club’s rookie camp on time.
The Riders obviously think highly of the six-foot-four, 310-pound Heenan, taking the University of Saskatchewan offensive lineman with the first pick in this year’s draft. But the 22-year-old native of Grand Coulee, Sask., still has plenty to learn about the pro game and needs all the time he can get in training camp to learn the Riders’ playbook and adjust to the pro game.
And although Saskatchewan will be looking to improve upon their CFL-worst 5-13 record of last season, Heenan should have the luxury of time to fit into the club’s plans. The Riders revamped their offensive line in the off-season by adding tackle Brendon LaBatte and centre Dom Picard in free agency before re-signing veteran Chris Best.
Heenan became the third first-round pick to sign this week. On Monday, defensive tackle Jabar Westerman, taken second overall by B.C., came to terms before offensive lineman Tyson Pencer, selected third by Winnipeg, signed Tuesday. But the Lions will have to wait for offensive lineman Kirby Fabien, who they took with the last pick of the first round at No. 7, as he’s returning the University of Calgary.
Defensive lineman Ameet Pall signed earlier this month with the Calgary Stampeders, who took him fifth overall. But Edmonton opened rookie camp Wednesday minus its two first-round picks as offensive lineman Austin Pasztor (taken fourth overall) signed earlier with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings while Laurier receiver Shamawd Chambers (sixth overall) remained unsigned.
Hamilton signed Sherbrooke receiver Simon Charbonneau-Campeau, a 2012 fourth-round pick, and also announced the retirement of veteran Canadian linebacker Ray Mariuz on Wednesday. Mariuz originally retired last season but rejoined the Ticats in October, appearing in six games.
The Riders also expect defensive end Odell Willis in camp Sunday. The Riders acquired Willis in March from Winnipeg, where he posted 13 sacks last year to finish tied with Hamilton’s Justin Hickman for the league lead.
Former NFL receivers Sinorice Moss and Dwayne Jarrett will also be looking to kick-start their football careers in Saskatchewan.
Moss was a 2006 second-round pick of the New York Giants and won a Super Bowl with the club before being one of the Philadelphia Eagles’ final cuts last year. Dwayne Jarrett was a two-time All-American at USC who was a 2007 second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers but was cut in October 2010.
But Benevides and Chamblin won’t be the only two new coaches looking forward to the start of camp. Scott Milanovich of the Toronto Argonauts and George Cortez of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are also entering their first seasons as CFL head coaches.
And the new faces in camp won’t be relegated to just coaches.
Ricky Ray, the longtime starter in Edmonton, was dealt to Toronto in the off-season with former Argos starter Steven Jyles also going to the Eskimos. Ray joined other first-year Argos on Wednesday at rookie camp.
Meanwhile in Calgary, youngster Drew Tate begins his first full season as the starter after last year supplanting incumbent Henry Burris, who was traded to Hamilton in the off-season with former Ticats starter Kevin Glenn is going to the Stampeders to back up Tate.
Hamilton also dipped into CFL free agency to sign heralded Canadian-born slotback Andy Fantuz and added tailback Martell Mallett, the CFL’s top rookie in 2009 who returned to Canada after two seasons in the NFL. As well, slotback Sam Giguere, a 2008 first-round pick, signed with the Ticats after spending three seasons south of the border with the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants.