National News

Lions rookie faces major test in first CFL start

By Monte Stewart, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - His first name is Hunter, but he protects the hunted.

The B.C. Lions are hoping rookie offensive lineman Hunter Steward, slated to make his first CFL start, will be up to the task Saturday as they seek revenge for a loss earlier this season against the Montreal Alouettes. Steward, a 22-year-old Victoria, B.C., native, has taken the field for only three snaps this season, but the Lions are counting on him to help shore up their rotating left tackle spot and provide key pass protection and run-blocking.

The Lions (1-2) could not handle Montreal's constantly stunting defence in a one-sided July 4 loss as the Alouettes (1-2) earned their only win this season.

"It means a lot to me (to start)," said Steward, who played collegiately at Liberty in the U.S. "I've wanted to play professional football for a long time. It wasn't football for my whole life, because I've played many other sports. But I've wanted to be a professional football player for many years now. It's come to fruition now and it's exciting."

But the Lions' hunt for a permanent replacement for retired former all-star left tackle Ben Archibald has been less than thrilling - largely due to injuries, including one suffered by Steward early in training camp. Steward, drafted sixth overall by the Lions in 2013, will become B.C's third different starting left tackle in four games.

He faces a difficult test to perform well and stay healthy, because his backup, Jemarcus Hardrick, only joined the team recently. Ryan Cave, brought in as an emergency replacement, was released earlier this week after starting the past two games.

Standing six-foot-seven and weighing 320 pounds, Steward provides plenty of brawn, but his body has proved brittle at times. He has battled his way to a starting role after suffering a sprained knee ligament in training camp and undergoing surgery to repair a torn shoulder labrum in the off-season.

He said the shoulder, which required just one internal stitch, is fully healthy again, and his knee has almost reached that point. As a result, it won't be "a stretch" to step into the starting role after playing only in short-yardage situations in last weekend's win over Saskatchewan.

"It is only three (plays), but even just getting in there once gives you a sense of the speed (of the game)," he said.

Steward and the rest of the offensive line will try to help quarterback Kevin Glenn get passes off quickly after he was intercepted twice and constantly pressured in the last meeting with the Als. Montreal held B.C. to 70 net yards in the first half of that contest and did not surrender a touchdown until the final minute.

"They beat us last time, so that's added motivation," said Glenn. "You don't usually get a chance to play a team (again) this quick unless it's like the Labour Day challenges - especially a team that actually beat you … Call it revenge."

Glenn, who did not throw an interception against Saskatchewan, said the offensive line will play a critical role as the offence tries to penetrate Montreal's defence.

"It starts up front," he said. "Every team is built up front. Whether it's defensive line or offensive line, it's built in the trenches. And when you have guys that put out efforts like they did last week, the majority of the time you win. So that's something we want to sharpen - especially with this (Montreal) team, because this team was built on aggressiveness. So we want to match that. We want to fight aggression with aggression."

But Montreal coach Tom Higgins, whose club is looking to rebound from a loss to Winnipeg, said the experience level of B.C.'s offensive line won't make a difference to the Als' defensive strategy.

"Even if it's the most veteran offensive line, we're gonna put a lot of people in the blocks, we're gonna come after you and we're gonna see if we can cause confusion and put pressure on the quarterback," said Higgins. "If you don't tell them that it's coming, they can't countermine. It's a matter of creating that illusion that you don't know where it's coming from."

There wasn't much doubt where B.C.'s success originated last weekend in Regina. Running back Andrew Harris rushed for 138 yards and caught passes for 65 more against Saskatchewan. His combined 203 yards earned him CFL offensive and Canadian player of the week honours.

Like Glenn, Harris is looking for the offensive linemen to work as one unit to help him continue to excel.

"If they're not doing the right thing, then I'm not doing the right thing," said Harris. "I need to count on them and they need to count on me to make the right read."

Lions coach Mike Benevides said he is not ready to "crown" a permanent new left offensive tackle yet. He wants the offensive line and all other parts of his team to continue to improve - and deliver a much better showing than in the first encounter with the Als this season.

"It was an embarrassment," said Benevides. "It really hurt, because we're a lot better football team than that."

Notes — Lions defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell will miss the game due to an upper-body injury suffered against Saskatchewan. Brandon Jordan will take his roster spot while Jabar Westerman assumes his starting post. … Als running back Steven Lumbala is out with a concussion, missing a chance to play against his brother Rollie's squad. Meanwhile, Als DB Jamaan Webb has been placed on the six-game injury list with a broken arm that required the insertion of a plate and screws.

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