Khalif Mitchell is in the doghouse with his B.C. Lions coaches and teammates as well as the Canadian Football League over his actions last weekend in Edmonton.
But Mitchell, who was fined an undisclosed amount earlier this week for making throat-slashing gestures at the Eskimos, won't get a chance to make amends Saturday in Saskatchewan against the Roughriders. The defensive lineman will sit out with a thigh injury.
When he gets back, Lions coach Mike Benevides wants him to make sure he does not hurt the team.
The coach's message?
"Play the game like you love to play and we need you to play," said Benevides after practice Wednesday. "But after that, there's no need to put any other forces in place that will create a problem for him."
Mitchell was not on the field Wednesday but defended his actions a day earlier by saying he was making the sign of a cross and gesturing towards teammates, not the opposition. Mitchell's punishment came after he was suspended for two games in B.C.'s previous meeting with the Eskimos in July, when he twisted Edmonton offensive lineman Simeon Rottier's arm, hyperextending his elbow.
Mitchell, a 27-year-old Virginia Beach, Va., native who bypassed a chance to sign with the NFL's Miami Dolphins and remained with the Lions for a third season instead, is known for his outspoken ways and colourful personality. At six-foot-five and 315 pounds, he is a gentle giant and self-trained concert pianist off the field, but ferocious and temperamental on it.
Benevides said he has no problems with the way Mitchell plays the game, but added the player has to understand what happens away from the play.
"I have no issues with Khalif Mitchell," said Benevides. "Not as a person and not as a player. He is exactly what we need between the lines. Everything else? Obviously, we've gotta minimize the distractions."
Mitchell's teammates have spoken to him about the need to show more self-discipline in games. But they want to make sure he remains a free spirit.
"Controlling somebody is not what we're trying to do," said defensive end Keron Williams. "We're just trying to steer him and build great character amongst teammates and amongst friends and amongst family and push forward to a championship."
Williams said Mitchell has had a target on his back since the first game against Edmonton. But he added Mitchell understands the importance of B.C. bid for a second straight Grey Cup and does not want to do anything to jeopardize the team's hopes.
Centre Angus Reid said it's important for players to talk to Mitchell about his actions because they could cause damage to the closely-knit team's unity. But Mitchell's teammates also have to support him.
"If you don't [talk], then you have dissension and you have nothing left," said Reid. "If you don't pull together and help each other out, then you fall apart. I don't care how much talent you have in the world. You're not a team anymore."
The absence of Mitchell's talent will be difficult to make up, but the West Division-leading Lions (9-3) were in the exact same situation before against the Riders (6-6). Rookie Jabar Westerman of Brampton, Ont., 22, replaced a suspended Mitchell against Saskatchewan in August and will again get the starting assignment.
Rookie checks in
Just as he did against the Riders in the previous game, Maurice Evans, a 24-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native, in his first year with the Lions, will again back up Westerman.
"There is nobody like Khalif Mitchell," said Benevides. "He's got a skill set that nobody else in this league has. But what [Evans] has is an outstanding physical ability to make plays."
Meanwhile, Solomon Elimimian will play his first game for the Lions since returning to the team following unsuccessful tryouts with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns. Benevides indicated Elimimian will play primarily on special teams while Adam Bighill retains the starting middle linebacker spot that he won after Elimimian, a 2010 CFL rookie of the year and 2011 All-Canadian.
But Elimimian and Bighill will also line up occasionally in the backfield together. In that case, Elimimian will likely play on the outside, but he does not mind.
"I'm just trying to fit in where I fit in," he said. "I'll be excited just to play."
Elimimian did not play against Edmonton because of a hamstring injury suffered in Minnesota's training camp, but has recovered sufficiently. Despite his return, Bighill said he does not feel extra competition for his starting job.
The coaches have indicated the 23-year-old Montesano, Wash., native, who is tied for fifth in the league in tackles with 64, will continue to start. Bighill is determined to keep playing well regardless of the situation.
"It doesn't matter who is behind me," he said. "If I start playing bad, somebody is going to take my job, right? So I'm going to just keep focused on playing well like I have, and [there will be] no issue."