October 24, 2012

Morris: Lions a talented bunch all the way through

BC Lions

Imagine going to work each day and watching someone else do the job you want.

Think about not complaining despite truly believing you could do a better job. Then add on the pressure that at any moment your boss might replace you with someone else before you even get a chance to impress him.

Family Oriented

“We don’t look down on anybody. It’s a family-invested atmosphere. The guys buy into that. We are all here about winning championships.”

– Keron Williams

Such is the life of a backup player in the CFL. It can be an existence of worry and uncertainty. All a player can do is wait and take advantage when an opportunity is presented.

Maintaining that patience can be easier said than done.

“It’s tough for sure,” said B.C. Lions’ backup quarterback Mike Reilly. “You want to play. You have your moments.

“You want to call your parents and vent a little bit, or call your buddy. You have to take a deep breath and realize your opportunity will come at some point. You have to prepare for it.”

The 27-year-old Reilly lived the dream of every backup when he was given his first CFL start because a shoulder injury kept Travis Lulay out of the Lions’ game against the Edmonton Eskimos last Friday. Reilly shook off an interception on just his second pass attempt to complete 19 of 28 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns in B.C.’s 39-19 victory. The win improved the Lions’ record to 12-4 and clinched first place in the West.

It was the kind of performance that can kick-start a career. Already there is speculation the six-foot-three, 215-pound native of Kennewick, Wash., could quarterback the new team in Ottawa. He might even garner the interest of several existing teams.

Heady stuff for a third-year player who was in danger of being released last season. Reilly is smart enough to understand Lulay remains B.C.’s starting quarterback.

“It was fun to go out there and play, but who knows when the next time I will step on the field?” he said with a shrug. “I will make sure to get ready to go whenever that is. That’s how you have to approach it.”

The Lions are expected to give Lulay another week of rest and start Reilly again this Friday when they play the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium.

Some backups are rookies looking for a break.

Running back Andrew Harris spent a year on B.C.’s practice roster while still playing junior football. He began getting playing time in 2010 as a kick returner and special teams player before taking over at the running back position last year.

This season the Winnipeg native leads the CFL with 1,727 total yards from scrimmage and is third in rushing with 1,025 yards. He easily could be the Lions’ nominee as Most Outstanding Player and top Canadian.

Harris said keeping the big picture in focus isn’t always easy, especially when you take a pounding in practice but watch games from the sideline.

“You have to stick with it,” said the 25-year-old. “As a backup, if you show enough when you get an opportunity (maybe) you can end up on another team. That’s the attitude you have to have.

“You have to stay on your game and always know your opportunity is coming sooner or later.”

Other backups are veterans looking to rejuvenate their career.
Receiver Courtney Taylor was a sixth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks. He played 18 games over two years in the NFL before being waived. Taylor, who has been diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis, was out of football for two years before the Lions signed him to the expanded practice roster last October.

The 28-year-old from Carrollton, Ala., was finally given a chance to play because of injuries to slotbacks Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce. In two games he has 11 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns.

Keeping physically fit wasn’t a problem for Taylor, but he admits his confidence wavered.

“It is hard, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “At the same time, if you’re still here someone likes you. That’s the way you have to look at it.”

Grooming backups capable of stepping into starting roles is one reason why the Lions are in a position to repeat as Grey Cup champions.

For Coach Mike Benevides it’s important to keep the backups engaged and convince them they are important to the team’s success.

“The biggest thing is really teaching them what matters, getting to know them as people,” said Benevides. “You have to speak to them, make sure they understand you care about them.”

During practice Benevides makes sure all his backups get some reps. That sharpens their skills and ensures they understand the system.

Simon, the CFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards, said that pays dividends.

“That’s why our team is so good,” he said. “On other teams backup quarterbacks don’t take any reps. That’s why they seem to struggle when they do get opportunities.”

Defensive end Keron Williams said veterans have an obligation to help the backups improve their skills and develop as professionals.

“We have to mould those guys,” said Williams, who currently leads the CFL with 11 sacks. “We have to mould their mindset to play like how the coaches want us to play, so when the coaches call their number, they can go in and play without losing a beat.

“We don’t look down on anybody. It’s a family-invested atmosphere. The guys buy into that. We are all here about winning championships.”