ABBOTSFORD, B.C. — The biggest change the B.C. Lions will face this season is the realization they are no longer the best team in the CFL, Wally Buono said Thursday.
“I’ll say it publicly, we’re no longer on top of the mountain,” the Lions coach and general manager said as the team opened its rookie camp. “We’ve been knocked off there last year.”
The Lions finished third in the West Division last season with a 11-7-0 record. It was the first time in five years B.C. didn’t finish first in the West.
Buono, who is entering his 20th season as a head coach and seventh with B.C., refused to say the Lions have slipped.
“Other teams, and I will say it in a nice way, got to our level,” he said. “No longer are we maybe a better football club than the other teams. B.C., Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatchewan, in this division, are pretty much all on an equal footing. That in it’s own way is good. It’s going to make you want to re-establish yourself and you won’t take things for granted.”
After years of being chased, getting caught is a natural evolution, Buono said.
“I think the other teams have upgraded themselves,” he said. “It’s like anything in life. You look at who is ahead of you and you build up to catch them. Over the years, that has occurred.
“From our perspective, we’re OK with that. We’re confident our organization knows how to win. This organization expects to win and we work to do that.”
At least eight veterans will be missing when B.C.’s main training camp opens on Sunday.
Cam Wake, the CFL’s top defensive player last year, signed with Miami of the NFL while speedy running back Stefan Logon has gone to Pittsburgh. Offensive lineman Rob Murphy went to Toronto as a free agent. Also gone are slotback Jason Clermont, linebacker Otis Floyd, defensive tackle Tyrone Williams, offensive guard Kelly Bates and slotback Bret Anderson.
While reporters asked Buono about how different the team would be this year, he talked about how much it would be the same.
Buck Pierce will remain as the starting quarterback with Jarious Jackson his backup. The receiving corps still features the one-two punch of Geroy Simon and Paris Jackson, who both had over 1,000 yards last year. The defensive line will be anchored by Brent Johnson and Aaron Hunt, while the secondary has veterans like Barron Miles, Dante Marsh and Korey Banks.
“There is still a very strong nucleus,” said Buono, who needs just five wins to pass Don Matthews’ record of 231. “There’s probably a good 10 openings (including backup roles) where we could get new players.
“That’s part of the framework we have set up. Hopefully, it helps us get younger, more athletic and, hopefully, a little more excitable.”
One of the players the Lions have high hopes for is Justin Sorensen, a six-foot-two, 222-pound offensive lineman who could take Bates’ spot at left guard.
A native of Parksville, B.C., Sorensen started 31 of 41 games at South Carolina.
“I’m just going in there, trying to do my best and learn this offence,” he said. “If I go out there and work hard, hopefully I’ll get a shot.”
Another player Buono will take a long look at is quarterback Travis Lulay who set a career passing record of 10,724 yards while at Montana State. Lulay has spent time in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints.
The six-foot-two, 216-pound native of Salem, Ore., is excited about the chance to play in Canada.
“It’s a quarterback’s league,” he said. “You’re throwing the ball all the time.”