DeVone Claybrooks knows there’s a big question hanging over his B.C. Lions as they enter the regular season.
With so many new pieces, can the Lions come together as a single, cohesive unit?
“We don’t have time to not mesh, with the schedule that we have, with the road games and the teams that we’re facing,” he said on Friday. “It’s important that you hit the ground running.”
The Lions’ first test of the season will be a big one. On Saturday, B.C. will host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a team expected by many to dominate this year.
Winnipeg has 16 players returning from the squad that dropped last year’s West Division final to the eventual Grey Cup-winning Calgary Stampeders, including starting quarterback Matt Nichols and star linebacker Adam Bighill.
They’ve also beefed up their back end, adding former Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive lineman Willie Jefferson in free agency.
The Bombers are solid, with a proven quarterback, strong defence and a coach who likes to play aggressively, Claybrooks said.
“(They’re) going to present a real challenge,” he said. ”But we’re going to present challenges as well for other teams. Our real question is, can we gel together to become a team? Because we know top to bottom, our 46 can rob anybody’s 46 in the league.”
B.C.’s offensive line shouldn’t be underestimated, said quarterback Mike Reilly, who’s returning to the Lions starting lineup for the first time since October 2012.
After six seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos, Reilly signed with the Lions in free agency. He started in last week’s pre-season win over the Calgary Stampeders, but only took three drives and is looking forward to playing a full game in black and orange.
“It’s for real now,” he said. ”You try not to get too high before you come out for the game because there’s going to be a lot of excitement. But once that ball’s kicked off, it feels like getting on a bike again. It’s the same game that you’ve always been playing and you’ve just got to go out there and execute.”
An offensive force like Reilly doesn’t go unnoticed, said Winnipeg’s Bighill, who played university football with the quarterback.
“He’s a great leader. He’s always going to give their team a chance to win. It doesn’t matter if there’s 30 seconds left, if there’s 10 seconds left, if they’re down by seven or down by 10,” he said.
Reilly isn’t the only new edition to the Lions roster. B.C.’s general manager Ed Hervey spent his off-season picking up talent from around the league and beyond, including receivers Duron Carter and Lemar Durant, offensive lineman Brett Boyko and linebacker Maleki Harris.
The B.C. squad may not have spent much time playing together but they have lots of experience, said Nichols.
“They have very talented players. The fact that they’re new together doesn’t change the fact that all of them have been successful in other places,” he said. “We fully expect (Saturday) to be a tough game.”
One of the veteran talents the Lions have picked up is offensive lineman Sukh Chungh, who spent the first four years of his CFL career playing for Winnipeg.
Coming back to the West Coast was a big draw for the native of Port Coquitlam and he’ll have lots of friends and family in the crowd for Saturday’s season opener.
“Too many to count,” he said. “I’m excited. It’s been a long time since I’ve got to play in front of my family like this.”
Still, leaving his tight-knit Bombers crew hasn’t been easy.
“Being a part of Winnipeg for four years and developing what we had, such a strong O-line there, and the culture we developed up front, it was definitely hard to leave that,” Chungh said. ”Because I went through the growing process, when things weren’t so sweet and when things were sweet. It’s definitely hard to leave my brothers there.”
That won’t stop him from laying some heavy hits, however. The six-foot-four, 315-pound starter said he fully expects to take down some of his former teammates.
“It’s just the opponent. Doesn’t make a difference to me,” Chungh said. “I know what colours I represent now and they’re the away team.”
Some lesser-known Bombers players will have an opportunity to steal the limelight on Saturday. Early injuries to receiver Chris Matthews and offensive lineman Pat Neufeld have created chances for athletes like Michael Couture and Lucky Whitehead, said Bombers coach Mike O’Shea.
“When you see young guys get in there and play, it usually turns out to be a bit scrappier than normal in terms of not always looking perfect, but they find ways to battle and to try and win,” he said. ”So I always like that part of it.”
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press