Free agency has died down; the draft is over; and training camps are nearly underway. The 2016 CFL season is almost upon us, and the promise of another exciting season is building. To get ready for opening kick-off this June, we will go through each CFL team from worst through first and list three big reasons why you should be exited to watch your team in 2016. As a bonus, there’s even a reason to cheer against every team for the opposing fans. Last week was the Montreal Alouettes; this week let’s dive into some reasons to cheer for the 2016 British Columbia Lions
Get Excited: 2016 British Columbia Lions
Reason One: Andrew Who?
While Free Agency is generally a time of hope for most, this year’s edition came with a sense of frustration for B.C. Lions fans when Andrew Harris, one of the truly elite running backs in the CFL, walked out the door. Yet despite Harris’ departure to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers along with the massive production he provided, the Lions still have an exciting den of running backs to draw from for the 2016 Season. The most intriguing of these options is former Roughrider Anthony Allen who is a potential breakout candidate in B.C.. Consider the following: in 2014, Allen was 70 yards away from 1000 despite being in only 13 games. The following year, Allen still nearly got to 600 yards and held a lofty 6.2 yards-per-carry average all while being the second string back behind Jerome Messam.
Then there is the much hyped Jeremiah Johnson whom the Lions grabbed in Free Agency from the Ottawa Redblacks. Johnson logged nine touchdowns last year, and while many of them came in a three game stretch, the shifty runner showcased a dynamic running style while helping the Redblacks to their first playoff appearance.
Finally, there is the dark horse in the group in National running back Shaquille Murray-Lawrence. After an impressive college career, Murray-Lawrence ended up leading the Lions in kick-off return yards after being drafted 23rd overall in 2015. Only 22-years-old and still adjusting to the CFL game, Murray-Lawrence will likely not be the starting running back for the Lions, but the promising Canadian does stand to earn his share of the carries no matter who wins the starting job.
It will be impossible for the Lions to replace Harris and all he brought to the football franchise, but fans shouldn’t mistake that for a bad thing. The open competition for the starting gig will bring out the best in all of the intriguing runners B.C. has on their roster and perhaps give the team more versatility than it had even with Harris. If the team’s young offensive line can keep Jonathan Jennings and Travis Lulay upright and pave the way for these runners, it may just have Lions fans asking, “Andrew who?”.
Reason Two: Canadian Shield
To say having a strong offensive line is important in a team achieving postseason success is putting it far too mildly. It is absolutely imperative to be able to run the ball and keep your quarterback secure when your entire season is on the line. The past three Grey Cup Champions all boasted top tier offensive lines that allowed them to control the trenches and the flow of the game.
Why should the Lions fans be excited about this? Since 2012 their team has been diligent in investing in this formula. Kirby Fabien, Hunter Stewart, and Charles Vaillancourt are all first round draft picks who have a legitimate shot at making an impact on the offensive line this year. Throw in T-Dre Player who was the Lions first selection in 2014, and the highly touted Dillon Guy, who the Lions flat out stole in the fourth round of this year’s draft, and there are five players who have been considered first round material. That’s an incredible pedigree to have in the trenches and all of them are under 26 years of age.
As icing on the cake, the Lions also have five-time CFL All-Star Jovan Olafioye and nine year National veteran Tim O’Neil to anchor key positions along the O-line and provide leadership to a still developing core of players.
As mentioned before, this season will be a fascinating test for the Lions offense with both the quarterback and the running back positions up for grabs. The Lions success will be determined by how this young line comes together and whether or not it lives up to its sky high potential – something that Lions fans should be excited to watch.
Reason Three: Still The Best Linebackers
This off-season has seen the rise of several would-be challengers to BC’s long held claim to the best linebacking corps in the league. Saskatchewan has added Greg Jones and Otha Foster to a lineup that also includes the promising Jeff Knox Jr, while in Montreal the trio of Chip Cox, Bear Woods, and Winston Venable should rightly scare running backs everywhere. Yet until the season starts and those players start popping pads, the crown will remain in British Columbia with the Lions.
Adam Bighill was without a doubt the best Llnebacker in the league last year, racking up over 100 tackles and posting 4 sacks as he held together a BC defense that had lost a major player to injury. Who was that major player? Why that would be the best Linebacker in the league the previous year: Solomon Elimimian. Despite the gruelling injury that cost Elimimian a chunk of last year, reports are that the defensive terror is nearly all the way back. In Bighill and Elimimian the Lions have a pair of backers who are just as adept at slamming runners to the ground as they are rushing the quarterback. Both players have also shown a talent for snagging the occasional errant pass as well.
Then there are intriguing young Nationals Bo Lokombo and Mike Edem to consider as well. Last year Lokombo saw significant playing time and secured a West Division All-Star spot for his special teams efforts. This year the young Congo native may make an even bigger impact on the Lions defense. Edem is listed as a Defensive Back but don’t mistake that for an inability to rack up tackles (54 his rookie year and 55 his last year in college). As a high impact CFL All-Star back in 2013, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Lions use the 26 year old in some form of a hybrid backer role.
Regardless of who takes the third spot next to Elimimian and Bighill, the Lions should feel set to continue their reign of terror on opposing runners and throwers alike. No matter how you slice it, having the #1a and #1b Linebackers in the league is something no other team can claim – and that has to have BC Lions fans grinning.
Something for the Opposing Fans: Buono’s Best Not Good Enough
When it was announced that coaching legend and Hall of Famer Wally Buono would be returning to the sidelines, Lions fans were also hoping this would mark a return to the winning ways of Buono’s heyday. Yet despite the sense of stability Buono’s return may bring, the Lions are out on a very precarious perch if the four-time Coach of the Year cannot work his magic twice. The Lions have not won a postseason game in the last four years and Buono shares a healthy slice of the blame for that as the team’s general manager during that time.
Now back as head coach, Buono – fairly or unfairly – must win a playoff game this year or the suspicions that he is part of the problem may grow. With uncertainty at quarterback between Jonathan Jennings and Travis Lulay as well as a receiving core that needs a reliable threat next to Emmanuel Arceneaux, it will not be an easy return to postseason glory. Buono must manage this and several other holes in his roster that have cropped up during his time in the front office. It’s hard to doubt the winningest coach in CFL history, but Buono has all the blame riding on him if he cannot make his team relevant this year.