The BC Lions have decided to head down a road no CFL team has travelled for a long time.
In signing free agent Michael O’Connor as a backup to Nathan Rourke, the Lions will be the first Canadian Football League team in over 60 years to have two Canadians at quarterback.
“I don’t want to dismiss it and call it a side note,” Rick Campbell, BC’s head coach and co-general manager told a Zoom conference. “That wasn’t our primary motivation, it worked out that way. We want guys in here that can help us win.
“I like them both. I really like the way they conduct themselves, their skill set. I want to see them continue to work and continue to develop.”
2022 FREE AGENCY
» Official Free Agent Tracker: Stay up to date on the Lions
» Sudden Impact: A team-by-team look at free agency
» Back in the Den: Loucheiz Purifoy signs with Lions
» Lions sign kicker Sean Whyte
» BC signs Canadian QB Michael O’Connor
After missing the playoffs last year, the Lions are hoping to be better in 2022. They took the first step toward that goal by signing eight players on Tuesday’s opening day of CFL free agency.
“We were busy today,” acknowledged Neil McEvoy, the Lions’ co-GM and director of football operations. “We wanted to bring in players that were going to help us reach the next step and be move competitive on the field.
“When it’s all said and done . . .. I believe we have certainly done that. We’ve added a bunch of good pieces to our football team, which is exactly what we wanted to do.”
Among the players the Lions signed were defensive linemen David Menard, (Montreal), Mathieu Betts (Edmonton) and Steven Richardson (Winnipeg) along with defensive backs Loucheiz Purifoy (Saskatchewan) and Delvin Breaux (Hamilton).
The Lions finished 5-9 in last year’s shortened season and missed the playoffs for the third time in four years.
The retirement of veteran quarterback Michael Reilly earlier this year opened up salary cap room for the Lions but also left the team inexperienced at one of the most important positions on the field.
At the time, Campbell said BC would be looking for a second quarterback “that has experience and can come in and win a game for you if needed.”
Rourke, 23, completed 52 of 82 passes for 754 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions last year in his first CFL season.
In adding O’Connor – the 25-year-old Ottawa native who won a Vanier Cup with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, was drafted by Toronto in 2019 and played last year with Calgary – BC now has two quarterbacks who have played a total of 28 CFL games and have combined to throw four touchdowns.
“We did explore a ton of options from the most experienced of guys to lesser experienced guys,” said Campbell. “The one thing we wanted was a guy that understood the CFL game, where you weren’t flying (someone) in for the first time and explaining 12 guys on the field and the field is bigger.
“The thing I like about Michael O’Connor . . . he’s had really good coaching in Calgary and Toronto and he’s going to get good coaching here. It’s skewed younger than we thought but we think he has all the tools.”
CFL officials say it’s been since the 1950’s that two Canadian quarterbacks been on the same active roster.
The Lions were also active in shoring up what Campbell called an “inconsistent” defensive unit. The Lions defence was in the bottom third of league in many categories including being last in sacks (23) and forced two-and-outs (52).
“We made a lot of big plays, a lot of interceptions but we weren’t always consistent enough getting off the field doing those things,” he said. “We had a lot of good players on defence but I don’t think we were solid across the board. That’s what we were trying to address today.”
Menard spent six seasons with the Lions before signing with Montreal last year where the 31-year-old had a career high 18 tackles and eight sacks. The 26-year-old Betts, playing in his second season in Edmonton, had 13 tackles. In his first year as a Bomber Richardson had 25 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss.
Purifoy spent the last three seasons in Saskatchewan where he had 106 tackles, eight interceptions and a forced fumble. Breaux didn’t play in 2021 but in his previous four seasons with Hamilton recorded 110 defensive tackles, 16 pass knockdowns, six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, two touchdowns — one interception return, one fumble return — and one quarterback sack.
The Lions are hoping Whyte stops the kicking carousal that hobbled the team last year. BC used three different placekickers in 2021 but were ranked third last in the league at 72.2 per cent.
Whyte has appeared in 168 career regular-season games. He has hit 382-of-441 field goals (87 per cent) and sports a 42.6-yard punting average. He’s 14th in all-time CFL scoring with 1,515 points.
“We tried to get some help at the offensive line and there just wasn’t a lot there,” said McEvoy. “We still have some irons in the fire.
“We’re going to continue to get as many players as we can to help in whatever position we can.”