Byron Parker and Lin-J Shell are looking forward to coming home.
The veteran defensive backs return to Rogers Centre on Monday when the B.C. Lions visit the Toronto Argonauts. Parker spent seven seasons with the Double Blue before heading to Vancouver as a free agent in February, while Shell played three seasons with the Argos before being released by the club and subsequently signed by the defending Grey Cup champions.
“I’m excited, I can’t wait,” Parker said. “It’s going to be like a home game for me.
“It will be good to see my former teammates and former coaches like coach O’Shea (special-teams co-ordinator Mike O’Shea) and coach Steinauer (secondary coach Orlondo Steinauer). It’s going to be a good time.”
“It will be a good homecoming,” he said. “When I was there, what was important to me at the end of the day was playing well for my teammates and the fans.”
Redemption, both say, will be the furthest thing from their mind when they step on to the turf at Rogers Centre.
“I kind of knew at the end of last year that I likely wouldn’t be coming back,” said Parker. “After I signed with B.C., I came back (to Toronto) and joked around with (Argos GM) Jim Barker.
“For me, it was time for a change. I’ve done pretty much everything you can do up here as a player except win a Grey Cup. (The Argos) are playing great right now but at the time I wanted to go where I felt I had the best chance to play for a Grey Cup.”
Unfortunately for Shell, he wasn’t afforded that luxury. He suddenly found himself unemployed after being abruptly released by the Argos (3-2) in January before eventually finding a new home with B.C. (3-2).
“You know, a lot of the guys I came in with are no longer there (in Toronto),” Shell said. “Right now, my main concern is winning games for the B.C. Lions.
“(Facing Toronto) just makes the game a little more interesting ... but really, a game is a game and all you’re trying to do is win as many as you can.”
Parker, 31, and the 30-year-old Shell have helped solidify an already veteran Lions’ secondary that includes proven stalwarts Ryan Phillips, Dante Marsh, Korey Banks and nickelback Anthony Reddick. B.C heads into Monday’s contest with the CFL’s top-ranked defence (288.6 yards per game) and second in fewest points allowed (22 per game).
Toronto will counter with the league’s second-ranked offence (394 yards per game) and No. 2 aerial attack (308 yards per game). Quarterback Ricky Ray, acquired in the off-season from Edmonton, is second overall in passing yards with 1,542 yards and is the Argos’ offensive catalyst.
But Ray also has some solid weapons at his disposal. Tailback Cory Boyd leads the league in rushing with 424 yards (5.7 yards per carry) while receiver Chad Owens is not only a threat through the air with 28 catches for 392 yards and three TDs but also on punt and kickoff returns.
Owens has firmly established himself as a bona fide threat returning kicks — he was the CFL’s top special-teams player in 2010 — but Parker and Shell both said the former Hawaii star is a very under-rated receiver.
“He gets a lot of recognition for his special-teams skills but he’s a great receiver,” Parker said. “He catches just about everything thrown his way and is very tough to cover.”
Added Shell: “Chad is really hot right now. We have to find a way to keep him out of his rhythm.”
A humble Owens accepted his former teammates’ praise.
“Those guys were my brothers here for two seasons and we went against each other every day,” he said. “The same goes for me.
“They’re two of the best defensive backs in this league.”
However, Owens said that won’t stop him, Shell or Parker from playing to win Monday.
“It’s still going to be competitive because when the lights come on those guys are top competitors and so am I,” Owens said. “But at the same time as soon as the whistle blows after the play we’ll smile at each other and share a joke because it’s a friendship.
“With that being said, though, we’re still going to go out there and compete. They’re going to do their best to not let me catch any balls and score and I’m going to do my best to get open.”
Despite the presence of proven talent in the secondary, B.C. is ranked last in the CFL in interceptions with three, none of which have come from defensive backs. Parker, for one, certainly has a reputation of being a ballhawk with 28 career picks and has returned a CFL-record nine for TDs.
But the 2003 NCAA slam-dunk champion from Tulane says he’s a traditionally slow starter when it comes to interceptions.
“I usually don’t get started until Labour Day,” he said. “And when they do come, they tend to come in bunches.”
When it comes to neutralizing Toronto’s offence, Parker said the best approach is trying to pressure Ray and take him out of his comfort zone.
“Ricky is playing great football,” Parker said. “If you have a guy who can control the ball like he does and make the throws like he does, that makes everyone’s job easier.
“That offence is definitely an offence the Toronto Argonauts have been looking for a while.”
The Lions counter with a pretty solid offence of their own, anchored by quarterback Travis Lulay, last year’s CFL and Grey Cup MVP. Other stalwarts include tailback Andrew Harris and veteran slotbacks Arland Bruce III and Geroy Simon. Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said his team will need to play a complete game to beat B.C. and secure a third straight victory.
“We have a long way to go because we’ve not played a full game,” Milanovich said. “We know it, our guys know it.
“We’ve had our flashes but to beat a team like B.C. that’s the defending champion you’re going to have to play four quarters in all facets.”