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Lions need to start winning for coach’s sake

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VANCOUVER — The practice of “showing the white feather” began during the First World War to shame unenlisted men and conscientious objectors to take up arms when they didn’t want to.

That’s not exactly the message Yonus Davis of the B.C. Lions was trying to convey at practice Thursday, when the Yankee Doodle Dandy kick returner stuck a white feather in his helmet and called it inspiration.

“It was just something I found on the ground,” Davis explained. “Then I had an idea. I wanted to run like the fastest bird. No, it wasn’t symbolic. If it meant anything, it was Remember the Titans. That was the name of my team at Skyline (high school, in Oakland, Calif.)”

The Disney movie – Remember the Titans – tells the story of black and white players on a high-school football team coming together to play as one for their embattled coach, sort of like the situation the 1-4 Lions find themselves in Saturday night at Empire Field against the Calgary Stampeders.

Although coach Wally Buono isn’t facing the same organizational pressure to win or else, as Richie Hall of the Edmonton Eskimos did last Friday at Commonwealth Stadium, he knows the calls for change could turn into a bleating chorus if the Lions don’t start winning, as quickly as possible.

The prism through which a football coach sees his team is completely different than the one fans and media people use. Buono sees the skills and well-executed plays in practice that haven’t travelled well to game situations. But one that did happened in the fourth quarter in Edmonton, when Davis fielded a kickoff and burst upfield 88 yards for a touchdown to put the Lions ahead 25-21.

For B.C. this season, the Xs have had a knack of going to the wrong place, or dropping something when they get there. And the Os have turned out to be more intuitive and opportunistic in stopping plays than first imagined. Yet, on this occasion, the Xs cancelled out the Os, and it all worked perfectly, just the way it was supposed to in Chuck McMann’s continuing daydream.

“The return didn’t even go where it was designed to go,” says McMann, the Lions’ special teams coach. “But, sometimes, that’s just the way it is. You get a few key blocks, and you get a returner who can read the blocks, and suddenly the outcome is very good. Yonus has that ability more than Robert Jordan did, because he’s got the background. He’s been a running back, and he has very good instincts. Wally has the ultimate say, of course, but none of us were really happy about what Robert was doing.”

The Lions released Jordan, their No. 1 kick returner coming out of training camp, on July 26 after it became apparent he couldn’t find the holes or an extra gear. The question remains: Why did it take the Lions so long to make the switch, especially after seeing what Davis is capable of?

One reason is the Lions had an abundance of running backs – Jamal Robertson, Jamall Lee, Andrew Harris, Jerome Messam – on the game roster, and they hoped Jordan could see double duty as both a returner and a depth receiver. But it wasn’t happening on either front, and the lack of field position he offered was stifling an already problematic offence.

“He (Davis) did a nice job and the guys around him did a nice job,” Buono says. “The return game is codependent. You gotta have a returner who can beat people and you have to have blockers who give him an opportunity, which they did.”

Davis got three key blocks from Jason Arakgi, Andrew Harris and Adam Leonard to spring him, but Harris says the brilliance of Davis was evident in the way he played off the blocks, finding a clear path depending on which way the field opened up for him.

“They’re both explosive players,” Harris says. “The difference between Yonus and Jordan is that Davis hits the opening a lot faster. Jordan had the tendency to dance and try and juke people. Yonus hits it hard. He’s more of a get-it-upfield-straightaway runner. That’s why it’s a lot easier to block for him. You block somebody and he reads off your butt. With Robert, we had to guess where he was going.”

Davis’ show-stopping kick return isn’t a surprise to YouTubers or fans of the San Jose State Spartans, who watched the Darren Sproles-like running back burn teams in college. Davis is somewhere around 5-6, 190 pounds and runs the 40 in the 4.4 range. Not only can he fly laterally, he can soar vertically. He had a vertical of 38.5 inches and a standing broad jump of 10 feet on the Spartans’ Pro Day.

Because his running ability was so vital to the Spartans’ offence, however, he was given only a handful of chances to return kicks. Now that he’s a return specialist in the pros, Davis prefers to attack the field with the mindset of a running back.

It remains to be seen whether he represents a long-term solution to better returns. But Davis’ touchdown last week against Edmonton could go a long way in breathing some life into a moribund special teams unit. It just takes one spark to light a fire, after all.