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The off-season is a time of change for CFL teams.
Players come and go. Free agents are signed, veterans retire and coaches hope they have found the next great talent hidden at tryout camps. For the BC Lions it was the changes that didn't happen which most pleased Wally Buono.
Buono fully expected to lose three players from the defending Grey Cup champions to the NFL. Hard-hitting linebacker Solomon Elimimian did agree to a contract with the Minnesota Vikings but both defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell and offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye will be with the Lions when the club opens training camp in Kamloops, BC, next month.
"Probably the biggest surprise was in the guys who we didn't lose, who we expected to lose,'' Buono, the Lions general manager and vice-president of football operations, said during a telephone conference call. "That bodes well for us being big and physical at the line of scrimmage."
The six-foot-six, 325-pound Olafioye signed a contract with the St. Louis Rams but was released because of an unspecified medical issue. The All-Star tackle and finalist for the CFL's Most Outstanding Lineman Award was welcomed back into the Lions' den.
Mitchell came close to agreeing to a deal with Miami but decided the security he felt with the Lions was worth more than the insecurity offered by the Dolphins.
"This organization takes pride in creating an environment that players feel good about being part of,'' said Buono. "Khalif, I know, was very excited about the NFL opportunity but in a lot of ways I know he was very sad about leaving a place that for him was home. He feels respected here. He feels understood here."
The biggest difference for the Lions in 2012 will be Mike Benevides taking over the head coaching duties from Buono.
"I feel really good about our new head coach," said Buono, who retired with 254 wins, the most of any CFL coach."He's done an excellent job of assembling his coaching staff, developing an offensive scheme, a defensive scheme and special team scheme.
"He's done a good job of re-channeling the coaches so they are more specific in what we are doing."
Benevides has spent over a decade as Buono's disciple but wants to put his own mark on the Lions.
"I'm going to be myself," he said.”I'm not going to be Wally. I'm going to be a guy who is going to formulate a tough team, not only physically but mentally. We are going to push the envelope. We are going to attack and find ways to manufacture explosive plays."
One player who won't be at training camp is Davis Sanchez. The veteran non-import cornerback from Delta, BC, announced his retirement after 11 seasons with four different clubs.
"I am going to miss this league," Sanchez said in a statement."I feel so fortunate to have had it be such a huge part of my life thus far."
A three-time divisional All-Star, Sanchez played 155 games and made 28 interceptions during stints in Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and BC. He joined the Lions as a free agent in 2010 and appeared in 20 regular season games over two seasons. He was hurt in Week 5 last year and spent the balance of the 2011 campaign on the injured list.
Sanchez also spent time with the NFL San Diego Chargers. He played 16 games in 2001, making 19 tackles. In 2002 he played four games before being released.
"He had a tremendous career in the CFL," said Buono. "For a non-import to play the position he played, I think it showed the quality of football player and the quality of person he was. He is going to be missed."
The Lions have also added quarterback Thomas DeMarco from Old Dominion University to their roster. At five-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Buono said DeMarco is cut from the same mould as former quarterback Dave Dickenson. He compensates for a lack of size by being an elusive runner with a strong arm to throw the football.
In 35 games over three years at Old Dominion, DeMarco threw for 5,732 yards and 51 touchdowns. He also rushed for 1,456 yards on 346 carries and scored 30 touchdowns.
The Lions discovered DeMarco on a cold, miserable day at a recent free agent camp in Virginia.
"He was very impressive," said Buono."He's a very sharp kid. You could sense he had leadership about him. We watched him on tape. He was smart with the football, made good decisions."
Among BC's free-agent signings over the winter were defensive back Lin-J shell and cornerback Byron Parker, who both played for Toronto last year. Buono said it's a move toward a bigger, more physical secondary.
"Those two guys bring size, bring physicality," said Buono."They are veteran guys who know how to play the game.
"The receivers are getting bigger. Everyone is getting bigger. I think the DBs, if you can get them bigger, they are going to help you. Today a lot of people throw the ball out to the receiver quickly. You have to be physical and big and tough."
While hockey fans across BC mourned the Vancouver Canucks' early exit from the NHL playoffs, it was good news for the Lions.
Dennis Skulsky, BC's president and chief executive officer, said sports fans could focus their attention on football.
"With the Canucks leaving the playoffs when they did...we are talking football now in this community," he said.