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When DeVone Claybrooks talks about locking up the members of his 2019 coaching staff, we’re reminded of the brief, yet addicting, obsession with the Blackberry game known as Brick Breaker. Everyone who had a RIM device around the turn of the last decade knows exactly what we’re talking about. Based on our initial conversations about the men he will be working with, the new sideline boss is more than a little satisfied.
“You put the bricks up and you try to knock them down and that’s one of the key things that you want to do,” said Claybrooks.
“I was able to get the staff that we wanted in place, that we feel that we can be impactful and make our mark in the league.”
It took a little crossing of the T’s and dotting of the I’s, but Claybrooks and general manager Ed Hervey were able to get everyone signed and sealed early this week. Joining holdovers Jarious Jackson (offensive coordinator) and Markus Howell (receivers) on the offensive side of things are three of CFL mainstays in quarterbacks coach Drew Tate, offensive line coach and Vancouver native Bryan Chiu along with running backs coach Nik Lewis.
“I wanted to get a great mix with youth, experience,” explained Claybrooks.
“Being fortunate to be able to get some former players in there that can relate to guys and understand it, but also coach at a high level and coach fundamentals. Those were players that were good in fundamentals, that understand the game and are able to evolve as coaches.”
Defence and special teams both provide a complete makeover. Veteran coaching strategist Rich Stubler is back for a third stint as defensive coordinator of the Lions and will also handle the linebackers. Ryan Phillips, a fixture in the club’s secondary for 12 seasons as a player, is back in orange as defensive backs coach while Chris Ellis, a former member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills handles the defensive line.
In Stubler, Claybrooks not only gets a solid coaching resume and someone familiar with this organization, but he gets perhaps a bit of a safety net as he learns all of those extra nuances that come with running your own ship. Stubler held the same position for Calgary’s 2014 Grey Cup championship squad with Claybrooks as his defensive line coach.
“Stubes has forgotten more football than I can remember,” stated the new sideline boss.
“With that said and being able to have a guy with that knowledge and that experience, over 40-plus years in the league, I’m able to lean on him and understand him in certain situations and certain circumstances. He’s a mentor and a great friend of mine. He’ll be an asset to us. I think we’ll just evolve and grow defensively and it should be fun.”
Just like any other offseason, there is sure to be players moving in and out, but the secondary proved to be one of the stronger areas in a 2018 season where the Lions led the CFL in interceptions. For some of those guys, having a former teammate in Ryan Phillips as part of the staff would appear to be a no-brainer. But Claybrooks indicated his personal relationship with the Seattle native was a big reason he brought him back into the den.
“It’s good because RP is a pro. I was fortunate to have him in Calgary with me as a guest coach and then he helped us out at a game against you guys this year,” said Claybrooks.
“He filled in admirable for (Josh) Bell when he had personal reasons and his mother passed away. RP is a great players’ coach, he understands the system, he’s played in our system, he’s worked with Stubes before, he understands the standard of what we want to come in and what we want to bring and I’m excited to have him.”
The infusion of young coaching blood doesn’t stop there. Special teams coordinator Taylor Altillio spent three years with Claybrooks on the Stampeders staff while former CFL speedster Keith Stokes, a teammate and roommate of Claybrooks at East Carolina, comes on board as special teams and offensive assistant. It’s safe to say the new head coach has big things planned for his return game and cover teams.
“He’s a young energetic coach,” said Claybrooks of Altillio.
“He’s been a coordinator at the CIS level, he was the assistant under Mark Killam in Calgary, I think he’s a young, innovative guy that will bring some new life into the special teams. Overall, he’s done a great job filling in, he’s very detailed and knows how to put guys in spots to be successful.”
His old friend Stokes was a two-time CFL All-Star and won the league’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player Award in 2002. They grew up together as players and now look to do the same in the coaching ranks.
“It’s funny how paths keep continuing to cross, but you also want to get guys that you trust and believe in. As you look at the staff, you can see that. We have a good mix in super old in Stubes (laughs) and a good mix of young guys that are innovative, that are hungry and waiting for their shot. I was fortunate enough to be able to give them their shot and understand what they want, what I want and how do we want to get it done?”
Although an exciting last few days before a much-deserved holiday break, it’s just a couple more bricks in the massive wall they are looking to undertake in 2019 and beyond. You wonder if Brick Breaker may indeed make a comeback.