Mike Reilly is about to get much busier than he was in 2011.
The B.C. Lions quarterback took just six snaps in 2011 as a third-stringer. Now that he has been elevated to the backup role, he will face much more action as the Lions attempt to defend their Grey Cup title.
“I don’t think there’s any increased pressure,” said Reilly following a workout Tuesday at the club’s training camp. “I wouldn’t use that (term). Responsibility? For sure.”
Reilly completed just one of two passes in 2011, but he will be the first quarterback called if starter Travis Lulay struggles or is injured.
The 27-year-old Kennewick, Wash., native is willing to take on the extra burden.
“When you decide to become a professional quarterback, you know the pressure is going to be there,” Reilly said. “It’s always there, and we enjoy that. That’s why we play this position. So I’m excited about it.
“If that wasn’t there, I wouldn’t love the game like I do. So I think that I’ll thrive in it when the opportunity comes. But you still have to respect it. You have to know that there’s a big responsibility there. Nobody’s going to cut you some slack if you come in and you play poorly off the bat.”
Reilly joined the Lions early in the 2010 season after he grew disenchanted with shuffling between the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams during the 2009 campaign and was released by the Seattle Seahawks in the ensuing off-season.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats originally had him on their negotiation list, but let him go after he worked out for general manager Bob O’Billovich in Buffalo.
Despite Lulay’s success, the have little in the way of quarterbacking experience. But general manager Wally Buono had enough confidence in Reilly to release former backup Jarious Jackson, a popular locker-room leader who subsequently signed as a free agent with the Toronto Argonauts in the spring.
Buono let Jackson go because he wanted to give Reilly, a Central Washington grad who also red-shirted for a year at Washington State, more playing time.
“When you look at it, yeah, for sure, Mike Reilly is not as experienced as (Jackson), but we had to give to (Reilly) an opportunity,” Lions coach Mike Benevides said. “We had to create opportunities where other guys could shine — because unless we upgrade that position, it’s not going to happen.”
Next to Lulay, Reilly he has the most experience among the four quarterbacks expected to stay with the Lions the season. Corey Leonard, who has moved up to No. 3 from No. 4, did not play a single down in 2011. Thomas De Marco, showing signs that he will push Leonard for No. 3, is a pure rookie out of Old Dominion University in Virginia.
Reilly, entering his option year, is also playing for a new contract, which he is likely to get, in wake of Jackson’s departure. Lulay has a new deal, but he is also in position to possibly leave for the NFL so it’s critical for the Lions to develop a potential replacement just in case he goes.
In addition to backing up Lulay, Reilly will help counsel the 2011 CFL most outstanding player. Benevides said Reilly’s close relationship with Lulay factored into the difficult decision to release Jackson.
“You need to have someone that’s there for you,” Benevides said. “Sometimes it’s the coaches, but a lot of times, it’s the other player. You can really talk about what you saw, and that’s important, too.”
Lulay needs a “sounding board” other than a coach to talk about what went right and wrong on plays, Benevides said. The No. 1 quarterback said he also gets better by teaching Reilly.
“We think of the game very similarly, so it’s good to have a guy like that who’s not just coming with left-field ideas all the time and saying things that make no sense to you,” Lulay said.
The two quarterbacks are constantly pushing each other to improve and competing with each other at various athletic pursuits, ranging from weight training to basketball. When Reilly moved up to the Vancouver area in February, he stayed with Lulay and his wife Kim for a month and the two QBs constantly challenged each other at push-ups and other competitions.
“Sometimes it’s silly, but that’s just the way we’re wired,” said Lulay.
“It’s kind of funny, but we leave (rivalry) off the field a little bit,” added Reilly. “When we’re on the field, you just want to see the other guy succeed, because you know how much hard work they’ve put in. Travis has seen all the hard work I’ve put in the last couple years, and I’ve seen the same from him. So at that time, you want to see the guy succeed, or have the hard work pay off.”
While Lulay and Reilly wage their friendly duel, Leonard and De Marco are also trying to impress. Leonard, a 25-year-old Covington, La., native, feels more pressure from himself and the coaches to show improvement.
Although he did not play at all in 2011, he felt the experience of being with the Lions after they overcame their 0-5 start was good for him personally and professionally.
“It was just as much a football lesson as it was a life lesson,” said Leonard, an Arkansas State product, adding he learned the importance of perseverance and not losing faith.
De Marco, who impressed in a hurry-up offence drill at the end of practice and with his strong arm, is similar in stature to diminutive former NHLer Theoren Fleury. But the Lions believe he is capable of doing big things after starring at Old Dominion University in Virginia.
De Marco, a 23-year-old Palm Desert, Calif., native, found his way to the CFL after giving up on a career as a punter.
“I’ve always had to do everything the hard way my whole life, so I’m not afraid of the work it takes to get to what you want to do,” he said.