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Lions hope to rebuild after sub-par 2009 season

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VANCOUVER — We are at the dawning of a new but short-lived cultural tradition – the growing rumble from aluminum bleachers that could rival the incessant buzzing of South African vuvuzelas.

One of the charms of the temporary outdoor stadium at Empire Field is that Lions fans now have a convenient metal contrivance at their feet with which to repeatedly annoy visiting CFL teams. But will the hideous stomping sound really make it difficult for the opposition to function, or will it instead represent a growing impatience with a Lions team stuck in neutral again?

Vancouver Sun football writer Mike Beamish takes a look at the good, the suspect and the unknown of a Lions team in rebuild mode following an 8-10 season.

Three signs of progress

1. The Coaching Staff: That strident voice screaming into the earhole of his players belongs to Rich Stubler, the miscast former Argos head coach who becomes an overqualified defensive line foreman, replacing Mike Roach. One of the CFL's most creative defensive minds, Stubler is an expert sounding board for third-year defensive coordinator Mike Benevides who received criticism for the manner in which opposition teams mauled the Lions in '09. Jacques Chapdelaine takes over sole responsibility as offensive coordinator, freeing up Dan Dorazio to work his coaching alchemy in forming a competent O-line from disparate parts. Travis Moore (receivers) and jack-of-all-trades Barron Miles are enthusiastic teachers in a year in which the Lions could pay through their inexperience.

2. The Running Game: Wally Buono maintains that this is the most talented group of running backs he's had in his 21 seasons as a head coach, led by former Argo all-purpose grunt Jamal Robertson, who replaces departed Martell Mallett (Eagles). Fullback could be the biggest upgrade, however, with Jamall Lee's 4.39 speed exploited on swing passes out of the backfield and 6-4, 245-pound Jerome Messam providing the short-yardage bulldozer the Lions have lacked.

3. The Linebackers: There's jack-rabbit quickness on the front line with the signing of free-agent gem Keron Williams, who replaces departed Ricky Foley (Seahawks) at rush end. But Buono's major focus was improving the speed and range of his linebacking corps, which contributed to making the Lions the CFL's most vulnerable team against the run last season. Rookies Solomon Elimimian and Joe Henderson “are younger and faster” than their predecessors and James Yurichuk, who will back up Anton McKenzie at MAC (middle linebacker), is one of the team's most improved players.

Three areas of concern

1. Offensive line: Growing pains, a growing problem, or both? The starting five of (left to right) Damane Duckett, Andrew Jones, Dean Valli, Jovan Olafioye and Justin Sorensen is 29, 27, 26, 22 and 24. Duckett, the senior man in years, is a converted defensive lineman with only one previous CFL start. Sorensen is holding the fort at right tackle until Sherko Haji-Rasouli returns from arthroscopic knee surgery, and the learning curve similarly will be steep for Jones, Valli and Olafioye. Casey Printers – better get out your dancing shoes.

2. Primacy of the secondary: We can't erase the memory of Anthony Calvillo shredding the Lions secondary for five touchdown passes in last year's East Division final or Ricky Ray completing 13 of 14 passes in one half of a preseason game just 10 days ago. Centre fielder Tad Crawford starts in place of retired Barron Miles, rookie Stanley Franks replaces Darren Toney (released) at halfback and Davis Sanchez is an upgrade at field corner, though he turns 36 in August. Buono has faith in the unit, which may come to pass, but is unwarranted just yet.

3. Good Hands Club: The Lions have deepened their talent pool of receivers, and Geroy Simon's fiery play continues to defy the ravages of time. But the problematic knees of slotback Paris Jackson and wideout Derick Armstrong are a concern. Can they hold up over the long slog of 18 games? And can Manny Arceneaux take up the slack, if he has to? Arcenceaux broke in with promise last season and holds the prospect of a breakout year in 2010. The 22-year-old expects to draw NFL interest, a powerful personal incentive.

Three questions to be answered

1. The Return Game: Ryan Grice-Mullen's 109-yard punt return for a touchdown in last year's East Division final convinced him his future is in the NFL. His replacement, Robert Jordan, has shown that he might not have a future in the CFL. While two preseason games don't necessarily indicate a trend, the question lingers: Will the Lions get a good return on their return game?

2. Quarterback Health: A popular myth is that lightning cannot strike the same place twice. It can and does. That makes backup quarterback Travis Lulay a linchpin for the Lions' season. No. 3 QB Jarious Jackson is still getting over shoulder surgery and starter Casey Printers has shown a predilection for getting nicked, if not seriously injured. The Lions have only three QBs this time, though five proved to be a minimum roster requirement last season.

3. Pressure to Improve: Buono vows to get out of the way and allow his assistants to coach. But the temptation to meddle is there, since the head coach has a tendency to micro-manage and he is facing pressure to improve. No doubt, the Lions have better personnel. But will it translate into a typical 12-win season for the league's winningest coach? Not necessarily, since a rising tide of football talent has raised seven other ships throughout the CFL. A 9-9 year seems more like it.