Somewhere between the cockiness that B.C. receiver Manny Arceneaux recommends for his quarterback and the humility that has taken root in Jonathon Jennings, there is an appropriate, useful amount of swagger.
After an off-season spent rebuilding his confidence and a solid Week 1 performance that will help in the standings and between the ears, it’s a good bet Jennings will find that balance this season, which is just his fourth in the Canadian Football League.
“It was a humbling year last year, so that was different,” the 25-year-old said earlier this month in Kamloops, B.C., where the Lions held training camp. “When I’m playing my best, I’m playing a little cocky. I’m not a cocky guy — I think I was at one point in my life — and I learned a lot of lessons. I’ve been humbled a lot.
“But sometimes, especially at the quarterback position, you’ve got to be kind of arrogant and let everybody know you’re here to compete.”
That’s the point Arceneaux was making in camp.
“I joke with him all the time. I say, ‘Hey, you’re the man. Ain’t nothing wrong with being a little arrogant and a little cocky because that’s what comes with the position.’ Like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, guys who just know, ‘I’m the guy, this is what I expect.’
“That’s the role he has. It’s the mindset of the brand of football we’re going to play. We say we’re going to be tough and we’re going to be physical, that just comes with the territory. I think he will adjust quite well. I’m just looking forward to him taking charge.”
Jennings took the first decisive steps on Saturday in a 22-10 home win over Montreal. He was good on 20 of 24 pass attempts for only 183 yards, but he tossed for two touchdowns and no interceptions. His 83 per cent completion rate and 131.1 passer rating topped the league.
He also ran with purpose, piling up a team-high 57 yards on nine carries.
A solid outing against Montreal, expected to be the league doormat, won’t change the perception yet. Jennings still has to prove that 2017 was the aberration, not 2016. He dipped to just 3,639 yards passing, 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions last year. Those were particularly pedestrian when compared to 5,226 yards, 27 TDs and 15 interceptions in his breakout 2016 campaign.
But there were complications. He suffered a shoulder injury in Week 4 last year, came back in Week 8 and didn’t look ready. His offensive line didn’t do the job either, and the Lions yielded a league-high 49 sacks.
“It was us as a whole not executing,” Arceneaux said. “Because when he was out there tearing it up, everything was peaches and cream; ‘this guy can throw for 5,000 yards or something.’ When we’re not out there executing, the linemen miss a block, the receiver runs the wrong way, now you’ve got injuries occurring and everything starts going bad, and a lot falls on the quarterback. If we do what we have to do, that will help Jonathon Jennings be successful.”
Lions GM Ed Hervey did his part, shoring up the offensive line with the acquisitions of Joel Figueroa and Jovan Olafioye, and the Lions gave up only two sacks on Saturday.
Hervey also brought in a new offensive co-ordinator, former Lions’ quarterback Jarious Jackson, who had an immediate impact.
“I love Jarious. He’s really demanding, really set in his structure,” Jennings said. “He has set rules. Even if we throw a ball for a completion 10 yards down the field, if we didn’t go through our right reads, Jarious is on us. It’s going to be really good for me, somebody who makes us focus on the details.”
The big picture last year wasn’t pretty, but Jennings has had help narrowing the focus to his controllables. He worked with a sport psychologist, and read NFL quarterback Drew Brees’s autobiography, Coming Back Stronger.
“It’s kind of crazy because in his third year he had a similar situation where he didn’t play very well, ended up getting hurt, getting benched a couple times,” Jennings said.
“Look at him now. He’s a Super Bowl champion, he’s been to the Pro Bowl nine times or so. It’s all about responding.”
The power ranking
Bighill doesn’t quite fit in the big time
Winnipeg linebacker Adam Bighill will tell you, now that he knows firsthand, what the real difference is between the NFL and the CFL.
“They don’t look at things the same in the NFL. One guy’s salary there is an entire team’s salary up here. So the values they put on things are completely different,” he said during the Blue Bombers’ training camp in early June.
“In the CFL, the best players usually play. Coaches find a way to get those players on the field, no matter their background, no matter their size, height, weight, speed, arm length, hand size, whatever. They find a way to play and make plays. That’s one of the biggest differences, I found.”
The 29-year-old from Montesano, Wash. encountered that reality in New Orleans, when the Saints cut him loose after a minicamp in May. He signed a three-year deal in January 2017, but spent the year mostly on their practice roster. He played in only three regular season games, and only on special teams.
But he knows he can play down there. He answered that question for himself, emphatically, during the 2017 pre-season. He had four tackles and a pick in his first two games, 11 tackles in his final tilt against Baltimore.
“The answer was, look at my tape. In the pre-season I played lights out. I proved to myself that I can play down there. Whether or not I ended up sticking down there for a year, is something I can’t control. My play spoke for itself. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”
It didn’t work out for him, a former CFL all-star and most outstanding defensive player, and he has advice for the next CFL star who will test the NFL waters.
“It’s trying to find the right fit, the team that really likes you. You would hope to speak to some coaches before you sign, as opposed to the scouting staff. Because sometimes coaches and scouting staff, they don’t necessarily completely agree with one another on decisions, or communicate well enough.
“Sometimes a scout may love a guy but the coach is like, ‘meh, I don’t know.’ You need to have someone who is making decisions down there going to bat for you.”
Bighill believes that Saints head coach Sean Payton respected him for his skills and work ethic, but wouldn’t go to bat for him because Bighill simply did not fit the preferred physical model. He’s under-sized at five-foot-10, 230 pounds.
“I think the scouting staff down in New Orleans really liked me but I just don’t think I ended up fitting the height, size mold that Sean Payton wanted. He’s a former Bill Parcells guy. They like linebackers at six-two, six-three, big linebackers.
“I’m more of a hybrid safety/linebacker who can move, cover, play the run and be more explosive, cover more ground.”
He is doing all of that again in the CFL. Against the Eskimos in Week 1, he had eight tackles and a quarterback pressure.
21,693 Increase in combined official CFL Week 1 attendance in 2018 versus 2017. B.C. Place Stadium was the only venue that had a home game in Week 1 each year, and the Lions boosted their announced attendance from 19,175 in 2017 to 20,182 on Saturday night.
54.4 Ty Long’s league-high punting average for the Lions against Montreal in Week 1. He boomed eight punts, the longest was 57 yards. He was also tops in net punting average with 40.9 yards, and went two for two on field goals. Looks like the vertigo that bothered him in training camp is no longer a factor.
73.5 Bo Levi Mitchell’s dreadful passing efficiency rating in a Calgary home win over Hamilton. It’s particularly notable because it was lower than those of Winnipeg’s Chris Streveler (79.2), Hamilton’s Jeremiah Masoli (88.2) and Montreal’s Drew Willy (92.7) and their teams lost in Week 1.
“I know it’s around 270 something. It doesn’t matter to me. I’d lie to you if I say when I was close to Don (Matthews), that it didn’t matter. But it wasn’t a focus. When you can surpass a great coach like Don, that’s a credit to you and that’s a compliment to him. After that, one more, one less, what the hell is the difference?” – B.C. head coach Wally Buono, during training camp. He increased his CFL record win total to 274 with a 22-10 victory over Montreal on Saturday.
Saskatchewan (1-0) at Ottawa (0-0)
Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Fresh off a home win over the reigning Grey Cup champion Argos, the Riders arrive in Ottawa a confident and mostly healthy bunch. Quarterback Zach Collaros shook off the rust and a personal 12-game losing skid, while guiding a balanced attack that produced 203 yards passing and 111 rushing. Charlston Hughes had three sacks to lead a dominating defence. The Redblacks had the week off. They have retooled on defence, and because they’re at home, and will have an apparently healthy QB Trevor Harris at the helm, they are favoured by a field goal. So call it an upset. Saskatchewan by three.
Winnipeg (0-1) at Montreal (0-1)
Friday, 7 p.m. ET
Winnipeg’s defence should be the difference against a Montreal offensive line that couldn’t handle the B.C. rush in Week 1, yielding five sacks. Alouettes QB Drew Willy still managed to complete 71 per cent of his passes for 281 yards, a TD and a pick. The Winnipeg front seven sacked Edmonton’s Mike Reilly just once, but they’re a solid unit, led by middle linebacker Adam Bighill, who was a beast against the Eskimos, recording seven tackles. Winnipeg is favoured by two points, no doubt an allowance made for their rookie QB Chris Streveler, who had an up and down debut against Edmonton. He threw for just 178 yards, three touchdowns and two picks and was barely over 50 per cent in completions. Winnipeg by three.
Hamilton (0-1) at Edmonton (1-0)
Friday, 10 p.m. ET
The Eskimos’ defence lost linebacker Adam Konar but has been fortified by the return of defensive back Aaron Grymes, who missed the opener to attend to a personal matter. He’ll make a difference in a secondary that was victimized by Streveler, Winnipeg’s rookie QB, for TD passes of 16, 23 and 20 yards. Hamilton quarterback Jeremiah Masoli put up some decent numbers in Calgary, but didn’t manage a TD pass and essentially threw the game away with an absolute gimme of a fourth-quarter interception. Eskimos are favoured by almost a touchdown and should cover. Edmonton by seven.
Calgary (1-0) at Toronto (0-1)
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
Both quarterbacks in this 2017 Grey Cup rematch have to be better than they were last week, as they fell to the bottom two spots in passer rating: Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell at 73.5 and Toronto’s Ricky Ray at 66.6. Given their pedigree, they look like good bets to atone for off days. Ray, who didn’t get a snap in either pre-season game, showed up rusty, didn’t pass for a TD and served up a wobbly duck for an interception in a road loss to the Riders. The Stampeders are bulletproof at home and overcame Mitchell’s 47 per cent completion rate in a win over Hamilton. Take the favoured Stampeders by three.
3-1 straight up | 2-2 against the spread
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @sportsdanbarnes