A year ago, the B.C. Lions were the defending Grey Cup champions, confident but without hubris or undue swagger, a potent offence and a suffocating defence. The Vancouver-based team delivered the CFL's best regular season – much like the hockey team in the city they call home – but come the playoffs, when it counted, again like the hockey team, the Lions could not deliver, getting beat up by the Calgary Stampeders at home.
So on Tuesday, a sunny mid-April spring day, there was the definite sense of unfinished business, as fresh legs, big smiles and youthful vigour defined the first day of a three-session, voluntary mini-camp. The Lions, for the first time since the last labour contract was signed back in 2010, have taken advantage of a clause that interrupts the off-season ahead of June's training camp, bringing in their quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers to jump-start an offence that never fully seized its explosive potential last year and failed in the playoffs.
"We fell short of what we wanted to do last year," said quarterback Travis Lulay, who in the off-season sign a deal that will pay him $450,000 a year, a figure that ranks with the top pivots in the league.
Lulay – who turns 30 in September – worked drills with the receivers and backs that will form the team's starting 12 when they start the 2013 campaign against the team they last saw as 2012 ended, Calgary, this time on the road, at McMahon Stadium on June 28. Lulay remarked that there was a "heightened sense of urgency" on Tuesday: "Guys were just flying around."
The mood and milieu was marked almost as much by the players on the field as one man who was not: Geroy Simon, the Hall of Fame-bound slotback who was traded in the off-season to Saskatchewan. This season is the first time since the first year of this century, 2000, that a Lions quarterback won't have Simon to throw to. In the absence of a Canadian Football League legend, some of the zest on Tuesday came from the likes of rookie Elvis Akpla, and the guy who arrived from the Roughriders in the Simon trade, second-year man Justin Harper.
But in terms of targets for Lulay, it is 26-year-old Nick Moore who could have a breakout year. In 2012, when he started five games for an injured Simon, Moore was always impressive and caught 32 balls for 399 yards and three touchdowns.
"I feel it's my time," said Moore, who spent the off-season in Tampa. "This year is the time for me to step up."
It was last year that running back Andrew Harris stepped up – and now, bulkier and stronger, he wants to improve on a 2012 season in which he led the CFL in yards from scrimmage with 1,830. Harris, who turns 26 next week, did his usual work at the Elite Performance gym in his off-season home of Winnipeg but added a lot more Olympic lifting. His chest and arms were noticeably bigger – and he now weighs in at 214 pounds, up about 10 from last year.
"I feel a lot more explosive – and definitely a lot stronger," said Harris – who hopes the muscle will provide additional durability and aid week-to-week consistency.
Harris is, like Moore, now among the players who are the veteran leaders of the squad, in the absence of players like Simon.
"There's a different energy, a younger energy," said Harris. "A different kind of spark."
A final question for the Lions offence is at backup quarterback, with Mike Reilly now in Edmonton. It looks like the job will go to Thomas DeMarco, who threw 13 passes last year, and took the backup throws on Tuesday. Rudy Carpenter, the college star from Arizona State who couldn't make it in the National Football League, is an x-factor, after being signed this month and making his first visit to Canada this year.