Tuesday, June 7, 2016
AROUND THE CFL TRAINING CAMPS
The six-foot, 199-pound native of Brampton, Ont., is making the shift from cornerback to free safety. Stephen is being counted upon to fill the huge void in Hamilton's secondary created by the loss of all-star Canadian Craig Butler (knee), who's expected to miss the entire 2016 campaign.
"I consider myself a football player so wherever they put me on the field I'll do my best to adapt,'' Stephen said. "They could put me at long-snapper and I'd figure it out and get it done for the team.
"Luckily I've got experience playing (safety). So far it has been good.''
Stephen played safety in 2013, his first season with Hamilton. However, there's much more communicating involved there than at corner, which means trying to be heard over Simoni Lawrence, Hamilton's colourful and always animated middle linebacker.
"I know it sounds like noise from the outside but we know that's our energy right there,'' Stephen said. "We need all those voices to be loud and confident on gameday so we're just getting our practise in right now."
Even with his experience at safety, Stephen has big shoes to fill. The six-foot-two, 196-pound Butler, a native of London, Ont., was a CFL all-star last season with 43 tackles, four sacks and an interception.
"Hey man, Craig is a hell of a baller,'' Stephen said. "He's definitely somebody I learned a lot of things from.
"It's going to be a lot of fun. Definitely get your popcorn ready.''
Now a family man at 33, the veteran defensive back for the B.C. Lions embarked on a much different kind of trip with his wife and two young sons this past winter.
"To go to Disneyland Paris was something,'' said Phillips, grinning ear to ear while recounting his European adventure that also included stops at the Louvre museum and the Eiffel Tower.
"I enjoy being a father. That's what I do first and foremost. I want to be the best role model possible for them,'' he added. "Instilling those family values is always going to be the No. 1 priority for me.''
The top priority on the field for the father figure in the Lions' secondary is getting his team back to the top of the CFL after four straight frustration-filled seasons.
B.C. hoisted the Grey Cup in 2011 - the second title for Phillips after also winning it in 2006 - but the club hasn't tasted victory in a playoff game since, including a dismal 7-11 campaign last season.
At his 12th training camp with the Lions, he understands the clock is ticking on his mortality as an athlete and is hungry for one more shot at glory.
"If anything's going to end, you want to end on a good note,'' he said. "I'm happy my career's still going in the right direction and I'm still playing at a high level.''
At five foot 10 and 195 pounds, Phillips has had remarkable durability. He's missed just four regular-season games, all in 2015, while snagging 46 interceptions, just five short of the franchise mark.
Lions head coach and general manager Wally Buono, back on the sidelines for the first time since 2011, brought Phillips into the league and still remembers seeing him at a free-agent camp in Oregon a dozen years ago.
"His skills have never really diminished. I think Ryan still has fun. Football has to be fun,'' said Buono. "He's been a great pro and also a great ambassador for the club.''
The defensive backfield should be a strength for the Lions in 2016 after adding Brandon Stewart and Mike Edem in free agency, while Steven Clarke is back from an unsuccessful NFL tryout to compliment Phillips, T.J. Lee and Ronnie Yell.
"We're going to be pretty polished,'' said Phillips, who finished in a three-way tie for first in the CFL last season with six interceptions. "We've got guys in position to be successful and we're expecting big plays.''
Stubler, 66, is in his third stint with Toronto after spending the last two years with the Calgary Stampeders. With nearly 30 years of CFL coaching experience - he's also spent time in the NCAA and arena football ranks - Stubler has won five Grey Cups and is highly respected for consistently delivering championship-calibre defences.
Stubler earned his last Grey Cup title with Calgary in 2014. The Stampeders (14-4) were second in the West last year and ranked second defensively in net yards allowed (302.5 per game), points (19.2), fumble recoveries (15) and passing yards (246.6) while being tied for third in sacks (49).
Foley, the CFL's top Canadian in '09 with B.C. and a three-time Grey Cup champion, said Stubler's experience sets him apart.
"He has an answer for everything,'' the veteran defensive end said. "You can't show him anything that he hasn't already seen and that's invaluable.
"I don't think people realize just how big the coach's role is. To the average fan it's, 'Oh, they have new coaches,' but it makes a huge difference.''
Toronto (10-8) was third in the East last season with a defence that was ranked eighth against the pass (282.8 yards per game), seventh in points allowed (27.7) and sixth in both sacks (46) and net yards (348.6). Head coach Scott Milanovich expects the unit to play fast and aggressively under Stubler.
"I think you'll see more collisions with balls in receivers' hands and our guys coming downhill on them and breaking on the ball,'' Milanovich said. "I think you'll see more pick-sixes (interceptions returned for TDs), hopefully.''
Defensive back Keon Raymond, entering his ninth CFL season, joined the Argos as a free agent in the off-season. One reason why Raymond moved to Toronto was to follow Stubler.
"Having Rich here has made for a much easier transition,'' Raymond said. "Anywhere I was going to go, I was going to follow him knowing his defensive scheme works and we're going to be productive.
"He allows you to make this defence your own. It's like a having a picture that you can paint whatever way you want because he empowers us to do that. It's all about team defence and I think once we get to that point where we understand it ... we're going to have a mural that's beautiful.''
Toronto GM Jim Barker was busy this off-season retooling his defence. He re-signed Canadian linebackers Cory Greenwood, Thomas Miles and James Yurichuk as well as American Brandon Isaac, national defensive lineman Daryl Waud and safety Jermaine Gabriel while adding Raymond and former Hamilton defensive linemen Brian Bulcke, Bryan Hall and Justin Hickman.