The first CFL game of the year has yet to kick off but the B.C. Lions have already become accustomed to adapting on the fly.
Smoke from nearby wildfires forced the team to curtail its training camp in Kamloops, B.C., last week and head back to Vancouver earlier than scheduled.
The change in plans hasn't been easy, said Lions head coach and co-general manager Rick Campbell, but he believes the unusual pre-season has prepared his group for whatever comes its way this year.
“I can’t compliment our players enough on how adaptable they’ve been," he said. "They’ve just kind of focused on the football part of it and we’re just kind of rolling with the punches. That’s a good trait to have.”
Change doesn't always come naturally for professional athletes, said B.C.'s star quarterback, Michael Reilly. Football players are "creatures of habit" who like to control their environments and get into routines, he explained.
"This year it’s going to be anything but that. It's just the nature of the beast," Reilly said. "I think the more willing you are to accept that going into this season, the better off you’re going to be as a whole because obviously with COVID protocols and things changing all the time, we have to just be able to adapt and overcome and be ready to make changes when they’re needed.
"It's a challenge but once we come through it on the other side, I think it makes us a tighter group all together.”
The Lions needed change after a disappointing 2019 season that saw the club finish at the bottom of the West Division standings with a 5-13 record.
It was Reilly's first year back in B.C. after a successful stint in Edmonton that saw him lift the Grey Cup in 2015. But the Lions' offensive line struggled to protect him in 2019. The marquee QB threw for 3,897 yards with 20 TDs and 15 interceptions in 16 regular-season games before being sidelined by a broken wrist.
The 2019 results saw rookie head coach DeVone Claybrooks dismissed and replaced by Campbell, former bench boss for the Ottawa Redblacks.
During the extended off-season, B.C's general manager Ed Hervey stepped down for personal reasons, and Campbell added GM to his long list of duties. He shares the role with Neil McEvoy, the club's longtime director of football operations.
Campbell and McEvoy set to work revamping the roster. They bolstered the defence with the likes of Marcus Sayles, who spent much of 2020 on the Minnesota Vikings practice roster, and former Redblacks Anthony Cioffi and J.R. Tavai.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions poached top talent from Ottawa and Winnipeg in free agency.
Dominque Rhymes comes to B.C. from the Redblacks where he was the team's top receiver in 2019 with 1,056 yards and five touchdowns. Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Lucky Whitehead spent the last CFL season with the Blue Bombers where he tallied 521 yards and two TDs.
When smoke cancelled practice at training camp in Kamloops, Whitehead hunkered down in his room and got busy studying the Lions playbook.
"I think I definitely picked it up very well. I think I’m on a good pace," said the 29-year-old from Manassas, Va.
Preparing for games will look a bit different early this season, coach Campbell admitted. With the extended layoff and so many personnel changes across the league, teams won't have much video to break down heading into early competitions.
Instead, the Lions will be concentrating on themselves, he said.
"I think the key to winning early this season is going to be being in shape, be ready to go and be sound and understanding what you’re doing offensively, defensively and on special teams," Campbell said. "It’s definitely going to be a focus on us and what we’re doing and doing it as well as we can.”
The Lions will kick off the 2021 CFL campaign against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina on Friday.
For Reilly, the prospect of playing an actual game again feels "a little bit surreal."
“Until that moment happens, it’ll be ‘Is this really happening?’ because we’ve been waiting so long," said the 36-year-old quarterback, who's heading into his 10th CFL season.
"It’s going to be a great time, it’s going to an emotional moment, I think, for anyone who’s invested in the CFL. But I’m excited. I know everybody is. It’s just going to be great to play football again.”
JUST THE FACTS
GENERAL MANAGERS: Neil McEvoy and Rick Campbell (first season as co-GMs)
HEAD COACH: Rick Campbell (first season with the Lions, previously coached the Ottawa Redblacks from 2014-19)
2019: Finished 5-13-0, last in the West Division
HOME FIELD: B.C. Place (capacity 54,500)
ADDITIONS: Defensive backs Anthony Cioffi and Marcus Sayles, defensive lineman J.R. Tavai, wide receivers Dominique Rhymes and Lucky Whitehead
DEPARTURES: Kicker Sergio Castillo (NFL), running back John White (Toronto Argonauts), running back Brandon Rutley (retired)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Rookies Nathan Rourke (quarterback) and Jordan Williams (linebacker), wide receiver Bryan Burnham, defensive back T.J. Lee
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press