April 24, 2018

Buono set to lead last mini-camp with Lions

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

SURREY, B.C. — A busy week continues across the Canadian Football League, as the BC Lions take the field on Wednesday for their three-day mini-camp in Surrey, B.C.

Lions fans hoping to see new additions such as Odell Willis and Gabriel Knapton will have to wait until May 20, when training camp kicks off and veterans report. For now, Wally Buono and Ed Hervey are using this time to put their new additions to the test, with the new quarterbacks and other first-year players in attendance.

For the Lions’ brain trust, Wednesday marks the first day of what the team hopes will be a long and prosperous journey.

“I told my staff it is the beginning of setting that groundwork for what you want to accomplish,” Wally Buono, asked about the team’s first organized team activity of 2018, told BCLions.com. “We’re excited to see the kind of players Ed has brought in and obviously you now have to start picking the guys you believe can help improve your team.

“We try to now evaluate them as CFL players, not NCAA players. Although the game is the same the field and other techniques are slightly different.”

Here are some of the storylines to watch this week on the West Coast:

The start to an ending

This week’s sessions mark the beginning of the end of a legendary career, as 2018 will be Wally Buono’s last season on the sideline for the BC Lions. Buono is the CFL’s all-time coaching wins leader and has also been the Lions’ general manager since 2003, winning a pair of Grey Cups along the way.

Wally Buono is looking to ensure a smooth transition in the Lions’ front office (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Buono has stepped away from the general manager role this season and hired Ed Hervey to take his place, looking to ensure a smooth transition as the 68-year-old backs away from the game. This marks the first time since 1991 that Buono won’t serve the dual role as GM and head coach.

The Lions are in good hands with Hervey, but you have to wonder whether some of the veterans will be playing to win one last championship for the CFL Godfather.

Pressure makes diamonds

Symbolism aside, this week’s camp should provide plenty of value for Buono and Hervey as they begin to shape their roster for the upcoming season. As is often the case with a new general manager, there’s been substantial roster turnover for the Lions and Hervey has left some openings to be filled over the next month or so.

The Lions’ brain trust will no doubt have their eyes fixated on the defensive backs this week. The secondary lost several key starters via free agency, with Ronnie Yell, Chandler Fenner and Loucheiz Purifoy among the departed. Hervey has brought in some veterans to compete at training camp, but mini-camp will give some new faces an opportunity to throw their hat in the ring.

This year’s camp should also feature competition at linebacker. Solomon Elimimian is a lock and won’t be at this week’s camp, but the Lions will make the WILL linebacker position a priority for them following the departure of Micah Awe.

While the receiver position is one of the Lions’ deepest, the team will take a look at plenty of new potential playmakers in camp, including Wisconsin’s Robert Wheelwright, an intriguing 6-foot-3 prospect out of Wisconsin, and blazing speedster Kieran Duncan, who once ran a hand-timed 4.25 at a pro day.

Under centre

It feels like a now-or-never type of season for Jonathon Jennings, the Lions’ incumbent starter who’s looking to rebound from a disappointing 2017 campaign. That’s been a key topic this off-season in Vancouver, but the Lions would like to use this week’s camp to get a better look at Michael Birdsong and Ricky Lloyd.

Quarterback Cody Fajardo was one of the Lions’ key off-season signings (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

If Jennings isn’t the Lions’ quarterback of the future, those two could be in competition for a long-term developmental role along with free agent addition Cody Fajardo — although Fajardo is not expected at this week’s camp.

Birdsong is a big man at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and, after attending Marshall University and Tennessee Tech, spent some time with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints in 2017. Lloyd, who went undrafted in the NFL in 2016, was just signed last week to replace the released Alex Ross.

Mini-camp should provide an indication of whether the Lions see long-term potential in either of these two pivots.

And, other than that, CFL newbies well get their first understanding of what a legend in Wally Buono is all about.

– With files from BCLions.com