The BC Lions and Calgary Stampeders are getting a little close for comfort these days.
The two West Division rivals kick off their season at Vancouver’s BC Place on Saturday night, where they’ll meet for the fourth time in five games.
“We don’t like them, they don’t like us,” Lions linebacker Solomon Elimimian told BCLions.com. “The most physical team is going to win.”
The Stampeders took last year’s season series 2-0 and outscored the Lions by 33 points before winning the Western Semi-Final in convincing fashion, 35-9. As though the Lions didn’t already have a bitter taste in their mouths, the Stamps went ahead and claimed the pre-season finale in Vancouver last weekend, 31-21.
On the back half of a Saturday night CFL double-header, now it becomes real. Dave Dickenson will make his debut as a head coach while the all-time wins leader Wally Buono puts on the headset for the first time since 2011 for the Lions in what will be an important starting point for both sides.
“The first two games (pre-season) were meaningful too,” Buono insisted. “I enjoyed the experience. It’s been a month now that we’ve been working at this and obviously this is an important game.
“It’s important to win a game against a very football team and it’s important to win at home.”
For the Lions it’s a chance to end what’s been a difficult stretch of games against the Stampeders and, more importantly, assert themselves early on in what could be one of the most heated West Division races in recent memory.
Despite a busy off-season with many veteran additions and the return of Buono to the sideline, the Lions have been one of the least-talked about teams heading into the 2016 season.
Former Ticats Brandon Stewart and Mike Edem bolster a veteran secondary that includes breakout halfback T.J. Lee and long-time Lion Ryan Phillips.
Also getting plenty of talk coming out of camp is Loucheiz Purifoy, who will line up at nickel for the Lions. The 23-year-old is a dark horse on the Lions’ defence and should have plenty of opportunities to make plays.
“The thing about him, he makes plays,” said Buono. “The more playmakers you have, especially in the secondary, those are things that help you win the game.”
Elimimian is hardly new to the team but his presence was badly missed in 2015 after suffering a season-ending Achilles injury back in the summer. With Elimimian and Adam Bighill, the Lions have the last two Most Outstanding Defensive Player winners, also known as Team 100 and the league’s fiercest linebacker duo in the league.
If the Lions’ defence can return to 2011 form, the year the Lions won the Grey Cup on home turf and Buono’s last year on the sideline, this is a team that could cause plenty of trouble in the West.“I’m excited to suit up,” said Elimimian. “Any time you don’t play, you miss it. I think we have the best linebackers in the CFL.”
Of course it starts and ends with Jonathon Jennings, who will make his first opening day start. Jennings is under huge expectations this season after a flashy 23-year-old debut season in the league.
“He’s got a persona that you want quarterbacks to have,” Buono said. “He interacts and gets along well with everybody, yet he’s not afraid to take responsibility or to be a leader.”
In addition to a new-look defence and a young quarterback heading into his sophomore season, the Lions will also test their new-look offensive line. First round pick Charles Vaillancourt will make his first career start at guard, while at tackle Antonio Johnson takes over for Levy Adcock who is recovering from pneumonia.
While the Lions are out to make some noise and prove people wrong, the Stampeders may have their own chip on their shoulder. They’ve heard their fair share of doubts from prognosticators this off-season – despite going 14-4 last year and losing in the playoffs only to the eventual Grey Cup Champion Edmonton Eskimos in the Western Final.
Plenty of changes have occurred in Cowtown, especially on the sideline where John Hufnagel turns over the headset to Dickenson, the former Stamps and Lions quarterback who will make his head coaching debut.
The Stampeders also lost veteran defensive coordinator Rich Stubler along with defensive mainstays Keon Raymond and Juwan Simpson, while on the offensive side of the ball Eric Rogers and Jeff Fuller departed to the NFL while Jon Cornish retired.
Still, 26-year-old Bo Levi Mitchell has emerged as an elite CFL quarterback and gives his team a chance to win on any given night.
“Oh man, we’re itching to get out there,” said Mitchell. “It was nice to get out there and play with the guys, but we know we’re gonna see a different BC team.
“They can put points on the board fast and we know they have a stout defence so it’s going to be a tight game.”
Mitchell will throw to Marquay McDaniel, Bakari Grant and, among others, Kamar Jorden, considered among many a candidate to break out in 2016.
Jerome Messam will carry the football for the Stamps after being acquired late last season in a trade with the Roughriders, while paving the way will be 2016 CFL Draft pick Roman Grozman, who makes his first career start at a position he’s never played before at centre while Pierre Lavertu recovers from an injury.
“I think I had maybe three of four practices in university,” said Grozman, a graduate of Concordia. “I pretty much learned it here. Any opportunity to get on the field or the roster I’ll take it.”
Safety Josh Bell will not play for the Stamps due to injury. Jamar Wall slides over to his spot while Ciante Evans fills in at halfback. Tommie Campbell will make his first career start at corner opposite Fred Bennett on a new-look Stampeders secondary.
For the Lions, Jeremiah Johnson will get the call at running back a year after leading the league in touchdowns. He has big shoes to fill after long-time Lion Andrew Harris departed to Winnipeg as a free agent.