CFL West: Lions younger yet hungrier than ever | Football | CBC Sports

CFLCFL West: Lions younger yet hungrier than ever

Posted: Monday, June 24, 2013 | 11:57 AM

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Lin-J Shell (2) of the Lions defends against Anthony Parker in a 29-27 pre-season triumph over the Stampeders on June 14. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press) Lin-J Shell (2) of the Lions defends against Anthony Parker in a 29-27 pre-season triumph over the Stampeders on June 14. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

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This could be the year that B.C. Lions, Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders widen the gap on the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL West Division. 

This could be the year the top three teams in the CFL West Division put some significant distance on the fourth-place team.

If you want to offer your predictions, remember the league has to add up to 72 total wins and 72 total losses.

Here's our preview:

(Click here for East Division preview)

1. B.C. Lions

2012: 13-5, 1st in West
What we predicted: 13-5
Lost to Calgary in West final

General manager Wally Buono sat down with head coach Mike Benevides in the off-season and decided it was time for the Lions, who had their pride wounded by Calgary in the West final last fall, to get a little younger.

That can be both useful and painful, the latter when it signalled the end of SB Geroy Simon's Hall of Fame career on the left coast. In 14 CFL seasons, he has amassed 15,744 yards, a league record.

Also gone are Arland Bruce, the other slotback, and DB Byron Parker, plus a few pieces here and there.

Two others out were not so old: DT Khalif (Arm Bar) Mitchell, who took his annoying act east to Toronto, and QB Mike Reilly, traded to Edmonton.

No worry. Top to bottom, this can be the best team in the league for 2013, led by a defence that gave up just 354 points last time around, by far the best.

Keron Williams, No. 1 with a dozen sacks in 2012, anchors a defensive line that will be a work in progress for the first month but has outstanding linebackers behind it in Solomon Elimimian, Adam Bighill and Anton McKenzie.

While most clubs rework their defensive backs almost on a yearly basis, the Lions have Dante Marsh, Lin-J Shell and Korey Banks to comfort a new starting safety in J.R. LaRose, who's been with the Lions for three years.

QB Travis Lulay leads a good offence, with backups in Thomas DeMarco and Joey Elliott (from Winnipeg). They have lots of protection across the offensive line, where a fascinating story is the mentoring of centre/guard Matt Norman by dead-cinch Hall of Famer, Angus Reid.

RB Andrew Harris (1,831 combined yards) gives the attack some foundation and receivers are abundant and fruitful with Shawn Gore, Nick Moore, Marco Iannuzzi, Courtney Taylor, Akeem Foster and Ernest Jackson.

If this team doesn't win the West, someone deserves a good whuppin'.

2013 prediction: 12-6

2. Saskatchewan Roughriders

2012: 8-10, 3rd in West
What we predicted: 4-14
Lost to Calgary in West semifinal

GM Brendan Taman and head coach Corey Chamblin apparently sat down in the off-season and decided, against all convention, that the Roughriders had to get older. As in, a lot older.

Well, they had to do something considering the club is hosting the 2013 Grey Cup.

After a quick 3-0 start in 2012 that left critics (like this one) crying in their lager, the Riders reverted to expectations and went 5-15 the rest of the way.

Yes, they made the playoffs by default (Edmonton was worse) and they did give Calgary a real run in the West final, but something had to be done.

Simon, 37, is the most recognizable of the geriatrics and, if he can stay healthy (hamstrings limited the league's all-time catcher to just 700 yards in 2012), he can be a valuable weapon for QB Darian Durant.

When you add Weston Dressler, Chris Getzlaf and a half-dozen other route runners to the mix, the team should be able to strike by air. RB Kory Sheets (1,794 yards) is excellent for a diversified attack.

George Cortez, who flared out as head coach in Hamilton, is back where he belongs, looking after the offence (his Tiger-Cats were devastating at that in 2012) and he'll be a key addition along the sidelines.

The real news, however, comes along the defensive line, where a complete rebuild turns up John Chick, 2009's CFL top defender returning from three years in the NFL, the aging (31) but still effective Ricky Foley (from Toronto) and Jermaine McElveen (from Montreal and Hamilton).

Saskatchewan wasn't half-bad at defence last year, but there's a big jump from okay to Grey Cup quality and the Riders have gone for it.

A shell game in the backfield has moved Tyron Brackenridge from LB to safety (this, we've got to see) and Craig Butler up to LB, where he shakes hands with newcomer Rey Williams, 32. Dwight Anderson, another old fella (he turns 32 on July 5) has been signed to anchor the DBs along with Weldon Brown (from Edmonton).

This can go either way -- startling or a complete disaster. We're leaning to the former.

2013 prediction (deep breath): 10-8

3. Calgary Stampeders

2012: 12-6, 2nd in West
What we predicted: 11-7
Lost to Toronto in Grey Cup

It's not that the Stampeders were thoroughly outplayed in the Grey Cup by Toronto that forces us to push them down to the No. 3 spot out West. It's certainly not anything about their defence.

After all, this club has 10 to 11 of its 12 starters back from a 2012 group that was the third-best unit in the league and is led by the likes of Charleston Hughes (11 sacks), Corey Mace and Demonte Bolden along the line, solid linbackers built around Juwan Simpso and a good, but not great, secondary.

It's not about the running attack as Jon Cornish tore up the league in 2012 with 1,457 rushing yards.

And there are lots of receivers, even with Romby Bryant gone to Toronto, Arjei Franklin retired and Johnny Forzani hurt again and on the nine-week injured list. In Jabari Arthur, Marquay McDaniel, Maurice Price, Anthony Parker and Larry Taylor, you have a fine group. But it is all about starting QB Drew Tate.

As local writers have pointed out, this is a guy who, because of injury or circumstance, has started exactly six games in his five-year CFL career.

Last year, he was to be the star, but a separated shoulder in Week 2 put him out until the end of the regular-season schedule, then some sort of headache and a broken bone in his wrist put him out of the West final and Grey Cup.

Tate says his goal for 2013 is to start and finish every game. If he doesn't, it's back to good ol' Kevin Glenn, who did so well last year battling his career-long inconsistencies until they raised their head again in the Grey Cup.

Or it can go to Bo Levi Mitchell, he of the 21 career pass attempts in one season.

GM and head coach Jon Hufnagel has more than earned both the benefit of the doubt and the right to be trusted in his decision making by fans and critics. He's putting a lot of faith in Tate and it could turn out to be well placed. If Tate goes down again, this will be a tough fight in a difficult division.

2013 prediction: 10-8

4. Edmonton Eskimos

2012: 7-11, 4th in West
What we predicted: 11-7
Lost to Toronto in East semifinal

For the second year in a row, the Eskimos upset the local media by being late with their final cut lists), indicating the club was either:

a) So overwhelmed with the amount of talent around camp that it couldn't work out who to release. 
b) Unable to find enough talent to fill out the roster and didn't know what to do.

New GM Ed Hervey understood he had a challenge on his hands when he inherited a club that couldn't score and couldn't stop either the run or the pass.

As a first step, he traded for Reilly to give the Eskies a solid 1-2 combination at QB with young Matt Nichols, only to have Nichols go down with a season-ending knee injury in the first exhibition game.

So Reilly it is, he of the three CFL starts (77 passes) and apparent unlimited potential. If he goes down, it's either Jonathan Crompton out of Tennessee) or old reliable Kerry Joseph, 39.

Making things more difficult is an offensive line put together with string and gum. When that unit lost its best, Orrin Thompson, to a season-ending knee job, the dominoes began to fall. Two newcomers, Thad Coleman and Cliff Louis, join Gord Hinse, Simeon Rottier and Scott Mitchell, the latter three shifting around to compensate.

If they can give Reilly some time, he has weapons in Fred Stamps, Cary Koch and Adarius Bowman, who missed 15 games last year. Hugh Charles (1,409 yards rushing) is a powerful running back.

In terms of points allowed, the defence was not too bad, coming in at fifth out of eight in 2012, but they gave up far too many yards and that equalled chances.

They also had a secondary that took too many chances as it rolled up high interception totals.

JC Sherritt, the best defender in the league, is back at linebacker and that helps. Odell Willis was brought in to work with Ted Laurent and Almondo Sewell on the defensive line, Chris Thompson (5 interceptions), Donovan Alexander (4 interceptions) head the defensive backfield.

Where things get interesting is on the corners, where rookies Aaron (Samson) Grymes and Marcell Young take on the most important job, other than middle linebacker, on a CFL defence -- covering those flashy wide receivers one-on-one down the sidelines.

Head coach Kavis Reed and his staff have a lot of work to do and it says here this is a development year for the green and gold.

2013 prediction: 6-12

Follow Malcolm Kelly on Twitter @sportsnag

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