OUTCOME OF SATURDAY’S TILT WON’T BE LOST ON RIDERS, LIONS
For two teams playing their pre-season opener, don’t expect any less intensity from the BC Lions or Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday night at Mosaic Stadium.
‘Culture change’ has been a phrase heard all over Regina and Vancouver the past few months, as Wally Buono and Chris Jones are in new roles and looking to spark the Riders and Lions respectively heading into 2016.
It’s easy to say a pre-season game doesn’t mean anything, but for two franchises looking to turn the tide it’s a chance to instill the habit of winning on players both young and old.
“It’s about winning,” Buono said during a pre-game interview back in Kamloops, B.C., where he’s led a competitive training camp in his first season back on the sideline following five years away. “It’s about learning how to win, creating a culture of winning and all the things we’ve been preaching from day one about how everything you do has to do with winning.
“So we’re going into the pre-season game maybe a little different than years’ past, where evaluation was critical – I think that’s critical as well – but we want to establish that culture where every time you line up you expect to win.”
The Riders feel the same but for both teams it comes within reason. While the Lions will likely rest Solomon Elimimian and hold Nick Moore, Derek Yachison, Brennan Van Nistelrooy, Levy Adcock, Bryant Turner and Darious Lane out of action due to injury, Saskatchewan won’t start Darian Durant at quarterback.
Durant hasn’t played a game since the 2015 season-opener when he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury, but Jones certifies he’s fully healthy – the 33-year-old just doesn’t need to be playing an early meaningless pre-season game.
“He’s completely healthy, this is a pre-season number one so we’ve got a lot of football to play,” said Jones. “He’s practised a lot of plays and looks great . . . he’s in great shape, he’s lighter than he has been. He’s picked up our offence very quickly and he’s a great leader.”
One of Brett Smith or BJ Coleman will start for the Riders, who officially mark the start of their final season at historic Mosaic Stadium on Saturday night.
For Riders fans, No. 16 Smith provides a rare semblance of familiarity, as the 24-year-old looks to lock down the second-string quarterback position against Coleman and recent add Phillip Sims. Jones says the fact that Smith was here last year and earned some valuable playing time puts him neither at an advantage nor a disadvantage.
“Brett Smith just needs to be Brett Smith,” said Jones. “What we did last year in Edmonton doesn’t matter and what he did last year doesn’t matter.
“This year is this year, we just need to go out and compete and have fun and play this game.”
Outside of Smith, Riders fans will recognize very little of what’s before their eyes in pre-season game one. Curtis Steele and Matt Walter provide the one-two punch at running back after arriving from Toronto and Calgary as free agents. At receiver, Rob Bagg, Nic Demski and Naaman Roosevelt are holdovers from last season and will be joined by free agent additions John Chiles, Shamawd Chambers, Clarence Denmark and Kendial Lawrence.
On defence, fans will get their first glimpse of high-profile free agent signing Shawn Lemon but not Justin Capicciotti, who’s missed most of camp so far due to injury. Not a single starter will play in Saturday’s game from last year as linebacker Jeff Knox Jr. sits out with an injury.
That still won’t hinder what should be raucous crowd at Mosaic Stadium, even if it is only pre-season. Despite the departure of fan favourites Weston Dressler and John Chick, Jones has sold hope in bundles this off-season, and Riders fans have their hopes high that the team can fight back in the highly-competitive West and return to the status of contender.
In short, the Lions better be prepared for a hostile environment.
“It’s always an intense place,” said Buono, the CFL’s all-time wins leader. “The challenge of the crowd and opposition makes the games exciting, intense and a lot of fun.”
While Jones wants his team to compete and have fun and begin the process of rebuilding in Regina, Buono brings a competitive outlook to Lions camp. He stressed to his players that Saturday’s game will go a long way in deciding some of the roster spots up for grabs.
All CFL rosters must be reduced to 65 players by Tuesday.
“We’re looking for young players to jump out and show us that they belong,” said Buono.
After re-signing only recently, Adrian Clarke will slot in as the Lions’ middle linebacker in place of Elimimian next to Adam Bighill. Mike Edem is expected to make his debuts in a revamped Lions’ secondary as the starting safety, while Brandon Stewart is not listed on the team’s depth chart for Saturday.
“I’m excited to hit a different coloured jersey,” said Edem. “We’ve been going at each other’s throats for two weeks now, so it’s exciting times.
“We’re looking forward to seeing all the work we’ve put in to come together in a live game situation.”
Rookie receiver Kendrick Ings is among international receivers looking to step into a starting role following the sudden retirement of Lavelle Hawkins. While Jeremiah Johnson is listed as the team’s starting running back, his biggest competition for the job in Anthony Allen will not play Saturday.
Finally, all four quarterbacks are expected to play for the Lions, but with Jonathon Jennings presumed the team’s number one quarterback going into the season, expect to see more action for Greg McGhee and Keith Price in the battle for third string quarterback.
As both the Riders and Lions continue what’s been a highly-competitive camp so far led by two coaches who preach competition across the board, expect a hard-hitting affair with many young players looking to assert themselves.