BATTLE FOR BO'S BACK-UP
CALGARY - With Bo Levi Mitchell the undisputed No. 1 quarterback in Calgary, training camp intrigue at that position shifts to his backup.
The Stampeders dealt former No. 2 Drew Tate to the Ottawa Roughriders for a draft pick in February, creating room behind Mitchell. Now three men with different football backgrounds are competing for the backup role, and the responsibilities and job security that brings.
Canadian Andrew Buckley, Calgary's third-stringer who rushed for eight short-yardage touchdowns last year, the well-travelled CFL pivot Mitchell Gale and former NFL prospect Ricky Stanzi will get ample and equal opportunity to showcase their talents, says head coach Dave Dickenson.
"Don't read too much into it, but I'm basically going to force the other three guys besides Bo to take all of certain practices,'' Dickenson said Monday at McMahon Stadium.
"Bo has been around us, knows what he's doing, so you'll see certain practices those three guys will get all the reps.
"It's more for me to try and make it a very even competition and make sure they get enough looks in practice that they're solid in pre-season.''
The trio have just over a week of preparation for that. The Stampeders have a pair of exhibition games over a six-day span starting at home June 6 against the B.C. Lions followed by a June 11 game in Edmonton versus the Eskimos.
The pre-season will go a long way in determining where players will fall on Calgary's depth chart.
"It's big piece. It's not the only piece though,'' Dickenson said.
Buckley's performance in the second of two pre-season games last year, when he completed 4-of-4 passes for 42 yards including a 22-yard completion, earned the Canadian university football star a job with the Stampeders.
"It's nice going into camp knowing the playbook,'' the 23-year-old said. "Last year going into camp, I knew the number one and two spots were kind of locked up.
"Going up into camp this year, I could potentially see the No. 2 job is open for the taking. That's how I prepared my mindset, just go in and try and take No. 2.''
Mitchell, the CFL's Most Outstanding Player in 2016, will get the majority of game action this season as long as he's healthy.
The Stampeders keep their backups involved in games, sending them out to carry the ball for short-yardage gains and to hold for kickers.
Buckley was a Hec Crichton Trophy winner with the University of Calgary Dinos two years ago. He ranked second in Stampeder touchdowns in 2016 with eight and scored another in the Grey Cup game. The six-foot, 203-pound pivot has thrown for only 124 yards, but he's been on the field in pressure situations.
Gale was released by the Saskatchewan Roughriders in January after one season in which the 27-year-old threw for 1,057 yards and three touchdowns behind starter Darian Durant. The six-foot-one, 225-pound Abeline Christian product also had previous stops in Toronto and Hamilton.
"I've played games, I've started multiple games, I've been back there under fire in the heat of the moment,'' Gale said.
Six-foot-four and 228 pounds, the 29-year-old Stanzi faces a steep learning curve in Canadian football that Buckley and Gale don't. He was a fifth-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011.
"I definitely feel a sense of urgency,'' Stanzi said. "You need to learn quick and apply what you learned to the field, so that you can show you know what you're doing, you can play well and if you are needed to go in and move the ball you do that.''
In other camp news, a preliminary hearing began Monday for the man accused of murdering Stampeder defensive back Mylan Hicks last September.
Hicks was shot in a parking lot after an altercation in a Calgary bar spilled outside.
Nelson Tony Lugela is charged with second-degree murder.
Several Stampeders who were at the bar that night are expected to testify in the five-day hearing.
AERIAL ASSAULT IN B.C.
A few metres away, B.C. Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings explains with the same precision what the newest addition to the club's receiving corps brings to the table.
"Speed and intimidation,'' Jennings said without missing a beat. "If I'm lined up at corner, I know I'm going to be afraid of somebody who runs like that.''
It's early, but it's also already pretty clear opposing defences will have a lot to worry about when facing the Lions' aerial attack in 2017.
Apart from Williams, who signed with B.C. after two standout seasons with the Ottawa Redblacks, the Lions have the CFL's third- and fourth-leading receivers from a year ago in Emmanuel Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham.
"Explosiveness,'' Jennings added when asked what comes to mind for the group as a whole. "Those guys are super dynamic. You've got multiple guys that can do different things.
"It's hard to stop that threat when there's so many of them.''
Arceneaux had 105 catches for 1,566 yards and a CFL-high 13 touchdowns in 2016, while Burnham caught 79 balls for 1,392 yards and three TDs.
Mix in Williams, who finished sixth in receiving with 1,246 yards despite missing the last four games of the regular season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus, and the Lions feel like the sky's pretty much the limit in terms of production though the air as they look to improve on last year's 12-6 mark.
"All across the board you've got guys who can be a No. 1 receiver anywhere they go,'' said Burnham. "It's pretty awesome, especially the way we've meshed and have been working together. There's no egos here.
"We bring our lunch pails and we go to work.''
The Lions were confident enough in Williams' rehabilitation to bring him on board as a big-ticket free agent in February, a move that head coach and general manager Wally Buono said should give defences pause no matter where the man who hauled in 77 catches and 10 touchdowns with the Redblacks last season lines up.
"Chris tilts the coverages,'' Buono said of the 29-year-old following a morning practice on the campus of Thompson Rivers University. "When you play against Chris Williams you've always got to be aware of Chris Williams.
"If nothing else, it takes some of the pressure off the other receivers.''
The Lions led the CFL with 40 passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2016, but Jennings said Williams' ability to go deep should create even more opportunities.
"That threatens the defence so much,'' said the 24-year-old quarterback set to begin his second full season as a starter. "Just that threat of going deep will allow us to run smaller things underneath and get things over top as well when they press up.''
While there's already lots of talk about B.C.'s passing game, it should be noted the club led the league in rushing last season and tied for the third-fewest sacks allowed thanks to a resurgent offensive line that looks to be in pretty good shape heading into 2017.
Williams was part of an explosive receiver group with Ottawa, which won the Grey Cup in November, and sees similar potential with the Lions, who also have former 1,100-yard slotback Nick Moore back healthy after he tore his knee in July.
"It's got all the capabilities to be whatever it wants to be,'' said Williams. "It's going to come down to how hard we work and then you've got to have luck.
"You've got to stay healthy.''
Jennings had breakout 2016 where he tossed for 5,226 yards and 27 touchdowns to become just the fourth QB in Lions' history to throw for over 5,000 yards, joining Doug Flutie, Dave Dickenson and Casey Printers. The only blight was a league-high 15 interceptions, something he said comes down to maturity and making better decisions.
A good stable of receivers is nothing without someone to get them the ball, and Williams, who caught passes from Henry Burris in three of his four CFL seasons, said Jennings is on the right track.
"His arm talent is elite, it really is. You can see it,'' said Williams. "I got to play with Hank. I've seen elite arm talent and Jon's got it.''
What Jennings also has is an embarrassment of riches running patterns for him in 2017.