As the 2023 season approaches, CFL.ca is here to catch you up with the Five Things To Know series. Each article will look at key storylines facing each team this season, while examining off-season movement and where your team might stand in 2023.
TORONTO — 2022 was the year that the BC Lions roared back to life.
They had one of their best campaigns in recent memory, finishing second in the West with a 12-6 record. After missing the playoffs the previous two years, the team hosted the Western Semi-Final. A win in that contest propelled the Leos to the Western Final in Winnipeg, where they ultimately fell to the Blue Bombers.
Sure, they didn’t reach their ultimate goal of getting to the Grey Cup, but the one-year turnaround from 5-9 in 2021 was pretty remarkable if you think about it. The Lions also have plenty of things to be excited about as the 2023 season quickly comes into focus.
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Vernon Adams Jr. is in the driver’s seat of the offence and a few vacant positions on both sides of the ball should make for some thrilling battles in camp. Plus, there’s plenty of continuity around the organization with Rick Campbell’s entire group back in the front office in 2023 to go along with keeping most of last year’s roster intact.
As the Lions look to make it back to the playoffs this season, here are five things to know about them.
It’s VA’s team now
Nathan Rourke was the story of 2022. His record-breaking stats. His jaw-dropping return from injury just in time for the playoffs. And who can forget his his departure from the CFL to the NFL. Now it’s time to turn the page to Vernon Adams Jr., who holds the keys to the BC Lions offence moving forward.
Adams Jr. was traded from Montreal to BC midway through the season, a few weeks after Rourke had suffered his foot injury. Adams Jr. needed a bit of time to get comfortable with the playbook, he only had one week of practice under his belt in his first action as a Lion against his former team in Week 14 (1 of 3 passing for 17 yards). After that game, Adams Jr. was ready to go as the team’s starter.
The 30-year-old filled in for the final seven games of the regular season, leading the Lions to their best finish since 2016 before stepping aside for Rourke when he returned for the Western Semi-Final and Western Final.
He’s healthy and had an entire off-season to prepare and Adams Jr. will turn his attention to helping the Leos to their goal of playing in the Grey Cup in Hamilton later this year.
Who’s starting in the backfield?
With James Butler heading East to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in free agency, there is a bit of a question mark as to who will be starting in the backfield this season. Antonio Williams, Tavien Feaster, Gregory Howell Jr., Nate Chavious and Vance McShane are the running backs currently on the Lions roster as of this writing. A battle in training camp is the likely solution, as Rick Campbell and co. look to find their new tailback to run the rock for the 2023 season.
Continuity is key
The Lions weren’t overly busy signing new players in the free agency. Instead, the team worked on getting their own players under new contracts. Sukh Chungh, T.J. Lee, Bo Lokombo, Garry Peters, Sean Whyte, David Menard, and David Mackie were amongst those with expiring contracts that the Lions made sure to have sign new deals before they expired on February 14.
The continuity went beyond just the roster as BC also brought back their entire coaching staff from 2022. Offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic, defensive coordinator Ryan Phillips, special teams coordinator Don Yanowsky, receivers coach Jason Tucker, offensive line coach Kelly Bates, running backs coach Trysten Dyce, linebackers coach Travis Brown, defensive line coach John Bowman, defensive assistant Tanya Henderson and video coordinator/special teams assistant Derek Oswalt were all signed to extensions back in December.
“We are excited to be retaining our coaching staff,” Campbell said. “They are good teachers and even better people. The continuity allows us to grow and improve as a coaching staff and as a football team.”
No Burnham? No problem
Perhaps on any other team, the retirement of a pass-catcher like Bryan Burnham would be a significant blow to the offence. He’ll be missed, of course, but looking at the BC Lions lineup, there’s really no need to panic. Three members of the receiver group caught over 1,000 yards in 2022: Lucky Whitehead, Keon Hatcher and Dominique Rhymes. And guess what? All three are returning in 2023.
Rhymes led the way with 1,401 (good for second in the league) to go along with 11 touchdowns. Hatcher was explosive last season, becoming a household name overnight. He caught 106 passes for 1,043 in his second year with the club. Whitehead also hit the 1,000-yard mark, passing the milestone by 11 yards despite missing three games with injury.
These three, along with other playmakers like Jovan Cottoy and Justin McInnis, will have Adams Jr. and Lions fans alike excited about the aerial attack when things get underway in June.
Patrolling the middle
With the Lions trading former Most Outstanding Rookie Jordan Williams to the Toronto Argonauts this off-season, the starting middle linebacker spot appears to be open for the taking. The team will likely go with another Canadian at the position, as co-general manager Neil McEvoy was confident in his team’s National talent.
“Given the quality Canadian depth we’ve stockpiled onto this roster following the last couple of drafts,” McEvoy said following the trade. “We felt we were in a position to part with a very good player in exchange for a higher pick.”
Ben Hladik could be the name to watch in training camp to take over in the middle of the defence. In 18 games last season, the 24-year-old racked up 59 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble.