Will There be Changes to the BC Lions Backfield?

TORONTO, ON - JUNE 30: Jeremiah Johnson #24 of the BC Lions carries the ball against the Toronto Argonauts during a CFL game at BMO field on June 30, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. BC defeated Toronto 28-15. (Photo by John E. Sokolowski/Getty Images)

Over the offseason, the BC Lions made some changes to their backfield by saying goodbye to Shaq-Murray Lawrence and acquiring Travon Van who spent his 2017 season on the Edmonton Eskimos, and Brandon Rutley who was with the Montreal Alouettes. Kick returning specialist Chris Rainey will also be back with the Lions looking to increase his role in the offence after the end of last season.

Changes to the BC Lions Backfield?

This creates a bit of an awkward situation for the back who is seemingly the front-runner of this training camp battle, Jeremiah Johnson, who had a less than desirable finish to his 2017 campaign. Because of his feeble finish last season there could be more of a battle for top spot in the BC backfield than most would expect.

Travon Van

After John White went down early in week two last season it looked like the Edmonton Eskimos backfield belonged to Travon Van but he went down with an injury after two solid starts. Both his skillset and size are similar to Johnson in that he is a kick returning threat as well as the fact he’s five pounds lighter than Johnson but stands two inches taller.

Historically, Wally Buono has preferred running backs who would fit a description similar to Travon Van, a player who is tall and comes with a large frame but also has strong lateral movement. Although we will see Travon Van getting some action this year in a Lions uniform as a potential kick off returner or short yardage/red zone RB, there is another running back who is more poised to surprise us as the Lions starter at some point this season.

Brandon Rutley

The new face in the BC backfield that is the most likely to take the starting role from Jeremiah Johnson is going to be Brandon Rutley who came over from Montreal. Another international player who is coming off a year to forget due to injury. Rutley only played five games in 2017 producing 291 yards on the ground and caught for 100 averaging almost six YPC.

He might just be a better fit for the BC Lions than Jeremiah Johnson. Over the years, BC has done better with typically “smaller” running-backs. Rutley is actually two inches taller than JJ but he is about 20 pounds lighter which is a big part of why he’s such a threat both on the ground and through the air.  

Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson is still the frontrunner for the starting job in the Lions backfield but the way his production fell off in the second half of last season cannot be ignored. To give context as to how much Johnson’s production dropped, in the first half of the season he produced four 100+ rushing and receiving-yard games in his first eight, averaging 90.75 of total offence in the first eight weeks. He scored seven touchdowns in that eight-week span while managing to score at least one in his first six consecutive games, he only scored five more in his last nine games.

In the second half of the season, his touchdown scoring wasn’t the only part of his offence that saw a reduction in the second half of the season for him either. He only exceeded 100 total yards of offence once in that nine-game span against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and only averaged 76.66 yards of total offence per game, a steep drop from his first-half form.

Chris Rainey

There is no way to talk about the Leos backfield without mentioning Chris Rainey. One of the best kick returners in the CFL who lead the league last season in return yards from kick-offs with 1671 yards. Towards the end of the season, BC really began to utilize him as a receiving back which was a role he excelled in.

In the last five weeks of last season, Rainey racked up 214 yards through the air on just 20 catches, in that span he also nearly produced a 100/100 game with 106 yards on the ground and 89 through the air. There is no question that Chris Rainey will be a force for the Lions this season whether it’s through the air as an RB or on the ground as returner he will be a player to watch this season.

The Potential Outcomes

After assessing the BC Lions running-back situation this season, there are two possible results for how their backfield will look this season.

The first is that Jeremiah Johnson will take care of most of the running duties on first down and in short yardage situations, and Chris Rainey will be utilized almost exclusively as a red-zone/passing down back after the success the Lions found with him at the end of the season. This will leave Rutley as the #2 running back behind Johnson and will likely mean more kick return opportunities for Travon Van.

The second potential situation is one where we see Brandon Rutley start to split carries with Jeremiah Johnson or even potentially take over as the top running back with the dual threat of being able to run or catch passes effectively. This would likely mean fewer opportunities with the offence for Chris Rainey and the possibility of seeing Jeremiah Johnson returning kicks as he did last season although I still think that Travon Van will be relieving Johnson of his kick returning duties regardless of the situation in the backfield this upcoming season. Despite all the question marks, the BC Lions have in their backfield going into this season, they will definitely see an improvement this year with all the raw talent coming to the west coast.

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