On the outside of the B.C. Lions offensive line are two towers, the veteran and long-time all-star Ben Archibald at left tackle and at right tackle, almost a decade younger, Jovan Olafioye, the league’s top lineman last season.
It was the interior of the line that was among the team’s most pressing questions this season, having lost three starters from last year to injury. Last year’s line was a wall: For the second consecutive season, the Lions had ceded the fewest sacks in the league and helped deliver the most yards on the ground per game, and per carry.
So when the new crew – left guard Patrick Kabongo, centre Matt Norman and right guard Kirby Fabien – were tossed around in the first game this year, on the road in Calgary, the worry looked more like a gaping hole that could well sink the team’s entire 2013 campaign.
But the trio – one revived veteran whose career was presumed over (Kabongo), a sophomore playing a challenging new position (Norman) and a rookie straight out of university (Fabien) – solidified almost instantly after their porous opening week. The line may not yet be quite the force it was in 2012, but it has physically underpinned the team’s offence as the Lions start the year 3-1, driving the second-best ground game in the league and keeping quarterback Travis Lulay mostly sheltered.
The man behind the ascendance of the new interior of the O-line is Dan Dorazio, who himself is the opposite of what one would consider a lineman. At 151 pounds, the 61-year-old coach is less than half the size of his charges, and standing 5-foot-11, he’s half-a-foot shorter than several of them. Dorazio, in his 16th year in the Canadian Football League, first in Calgary, then B.C., has been dubbed an offensive-line Yoda.
In the sun before noon on Thursday, Dorazio had his linemen in one corner of the Lions practice field, working on repetitions, his key coaching tool for footwork, technique. “Jitter the other way centre, jitter the other way centre, guards shuffle inside, hammer, guards shuffle inside, hammer,” chattered the instructions from Dorazio. “That’s it, that’s it, one more time, one more time.”
After practice, Dorazio summed his work: “Getting the guys doing the same things over and over again – until they get it.”
This year’s dynamic has changed, with two young players, one guy the best in the league, another veteran all-star, and the most intriguing of all, Kabongo. As Dorazio has shepherded the young duo of Norman and Fabien, he has also helped revive Kabongo’s career. The now 34-year-old stands 6-foot-6 and weighs some 360 pounds. He was born in Zaire and grew up in Montreal. He played on the defensive line for the University of Nebraska before being shifted to the O-line when he arrived in the CFL in the mid-2000s. But for all his physical promise, he never really flourished in Edmonton, struggling with footwork, and too often flagged for holding. Kabongo was dumped and B.C. grabbed the unwanted player before last season as backup for injuries.
Kabongo, against expectations, and under the tutelage of Dorazio, has flowered, a late-career improvement Dorazio has never seen before. And there is a gentle soul under the mass that has been marshalled.
“He’s a peach,” Dorazio said. “He’s got a big heart. And he will give you everything.”
Bonds are building. Kabongo – whose wife works with the RCMP in Edmonton – is, in his spare time, a fan of shooting ranges. He and running back Andrew Harris had been set to go shoot this week, but it was postponed. Harris was recently out for lunch with Olafioye. Rhythms, and relationships, build. “Everybody blocks in a certain way,” said Harris, who has two 100-plus-yard outings in four games this year.
“So much of football is based on trust,” Harris said. “It’s a brotherhood.”