August 3, 2012

Morris: Rookie OL Norman’s summer ‘vacation’ about to end

Rebecca Rempel

The summer holidays are almost over for B.C. Lions rookie offensive lineman Matthew Norman.

“I wouldn’t really call it a vacation,” the right guard said with a grin after the Lions practised on a hot, muggy afternoon at their facility in Surrey, B.C.

Norman came to training camp after being picked in the third round, 22nd overall, of this spring’s CFL Canadian Draft. He already had made up his mind to return to the University of Western Ontario to attend teachers college, so his expectations were to spend the summer practising with the Lions before heading back to school.

It turned into a working holiday when offensive linemen Jon Hameister-Ries, Dean Valli and Jesse Newman all suffered knee injuries early in training camp. Norman suddenly found himself starting for the defending Grey Cup champions.

Stepping up and stepping in

“It’s not very often that offensive linemen in our league start right off the bat. It’s a physical maturation, it’s a cerebral maturation.  If I said I wasn’t a little bit surprised I would be lying to you.”

– Lions head coach Mike Benevides

As summer jobs go, the 24-year-old college student isn’t complaining.

“My experience here has been fantastic,” said the six-foot-three, 317-pound native of Chateauquay, Que. “I have tried to absorb as much as I can from (offensive line coach) Dan Dorazio and al the veterans.

“I tried to take as much away from this experience as I can.”

Norman plans to return to Western after the Lions play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Aug. 24. That means Monday’s game in Toronto against the Argonauts will be his second last. The Lions have a bye week before hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Aug. 19.

Hameister-Ries, who is back in the Lions’ lineup after undergoing surgery, has been impressed with how Norman has made the transition from just happy to be here to you’re starting kid.

“He’s just getting better every game,” said Hameister-Ries. “He’s young and inexperienced but he’s playing like he’s been in the league for five years.

“Every game he’s better. That’s all you can really expect from him.”

Going from playing college football to professional can be like a student leaving high school for Harvard. It’s a steep learning curve with plenty of expectations.

“It’s such a specialized position,” said Hameister-Ries, an Edmonton native who went to college at Tulsa. “It’s not a real athletic position but it takes a lot of training.

“We have to be very particular in everything we do. For a rookie to come in and learn all these new techniques, the new ways of doing things, it’s incredible what he’s been able to do.”

Some days Norman felt like a college kid sitting up all night studying for an exam.

“Everything is an adaptation,” he said. “Just the scope of the playbook, the strength, size and speed of the players. The speed of the game.

“It’s been a big jump and I’m just trying to get better every week.”

In college Norman spent four years playing left guard. The Lions wanted him to switch to right guard. Not a big change, right? Try sitting at the opposite of your desk, or answering the telephone with your other hand.
“For me playing left guard for so many years, to get used to getting into a right-handed stance took a little getting used to,” Norman said.

He also had to deal with defensive lineman who like nothing better than to take a rookie to school.

“It’s a little intimidating but you have to be able to deal with that,” he said. “We have a great D-line here. During training camp going against Khalif Mitchell and Eric Taylor kind of prepared me pretty well.”

One of the people taking a personal interest in Norman’s development is quarterback Travis Lulay. It’s a quarterback who can directly feel the impact if a rookie messes up during his on-the-job training.

“He really deserves a lot of credit,” said Lulay. “That’s a big jump (from college). At first he was trying to be perfect. I think he’s done a better job of being able to move to the next play.

“He’s a smart guy. He doesn’t make the same mistake over and over again.”

Head coach Mike Benevides has been surprised at the few mistakes Norman has made.

“It’s not very often that offensive linemen in our league start right off the bat,” said Benevides. “It’s a physical maturation, it’s a cerebral maturation.

“If I said I wasn’t a little bit surprised I would be lying to you.”

The Lions lead the league in net offence with 2,071 yards and 700 yards rushing. B.C. has also allowed a league-low five quarterback sacks.

Newman remains on the nine-game injured list. Valli has recovered from his knee injury and saw limited action in the Lions 34-8 win over the Calgary Stampeders last week.

The Lions signed former Edmonton Eskimo Patrick Kabongo to play left guard during training camp. The plan is to return Valli to his right guard spot when Norman returns to school.

There still is concern over Hameister-Ries. He’s playing on a sore right knee that has undergone five procedures in six years.

“It’s a challenge,” Hameister-Ries said. “It’s day to day, just taking care of it, making sure I’m ready for game day.

“I just have to get to the bye (week), then I will have a few days to rest. That’s really all it needs, rest.”

Norman’s time with the Lions means he can’t play college football with Western this fall. He still has no regrets over how he spent his summer.

“Playing in a CFL game is a tremendous experience,” he said. “I got to play against Saskatchewan in Saskatchewan. That’s an experience.

“To be able to put the jersey on and go out there and play has been unreal. Everything has been pretty amazing. The players on this team, the camaraderie that is here is something special. It’s a great group of guys to play with.”