National News

Lions' linebackers thriving under new coach

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

SURREY, B.C. - Solomon Elimimian pulled B.C. Lions head coach Mike Benevides aside in the locker-room recently for a quiet word.

The club's standout linebacker wasn't looking to discuss schemes, an upcoming opponent or Xs and Os.

Elimimian wanted to thank Benevides for adding position coach Johnny Holland to his staff in the off-season — a move he said has helped take his game to the next level in 2014.

"I told coach Benny it's one of the better hires he's made," Elimimian said Thursday after practice. "We have great defensive coaches, but that fact that I get to work with him as my position coach, it's tremendous for my growth."

Holland played linebacker for seven seasons with the NFL's Green Bay Packers and was inducted into the club's Hall of Fame after he retired. He went on to coach for various teams in different capacities for 17 years in the NFL before joining the Saskatchewan Roughriders last season.

When the Lions were looking to get more out of Elimimian and fellow linebacker Adam Bighill, it was clear Holland was the man for the job.

"When I got here I told them my goal is for them to be the best two linebackers in the world — and that's including everybody," said Holland, who had six seasons of at least 100 tackles as a player. "I think they have the ability to do that."

Benevides said it was important to get a coach with Holland's resume to teach Elimimian and Bighill every aspect of the position.

"He's done a great job with them," said Benevides. "They're really flourishing and we need them to play at the highest level because I believe they're the best pairing our league."

The numbers so far suggest he's right.

Elimimian leads the CFL with 54 tackles in 2014, 19 more than Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back Matt Bucknor with one fewer game played.

The 27-year-old Elimimian — who has recorded double-digit tackles in three games, and is on pace to break the CFL's single season record of 130 — said Holland has given the entire linebacking corps the tools it requires to be successful.

"He's one of the most detailed people I've ever come across," said Elimimian. "The biggest thing he brings is confidence. He reinforces it. When I go out on the field, I feel like I'm the best linebacker.

"He's played this game. He played my position for a long time at the highest level. He just has a wealth of knowledge."

Bighill, meanwhile, sits sixth overall with 30 tackles for a defence that ranks second in total yards against at 316.4 per game.

"You need a coach that can push you," said Bighill. "You need a coach that can get more out of you and hold you accountable and always be grinding you to want more and achieve more and demand greatness. Me and Sol, we love that. We love competition, we love trying to be the best we can be.

"We love playing together and we've got a lot left to accomplish."

Added Holland: "That's what they brought me here for. I feel like, as a coach, I can offer a lot. I've had the blessing to play the game and play that position.

"I had a chance to coach some good players and learn some good things along the way. I've been around linebacker play for 27 years ... they're guys that are definitely open to listening. They want to learn something every day. They are two fantastic pros."

The Lions (4-3) have allowed just one offensive touchdown in the last six quarters and will be looking for more on Sunday when they visit the Toronto Argonauts (3-4).

"Defensively we've been playing pretty well," said Bighill. "Right now we're stopping offences pretty good, and we're having a fun time doing it."

For his part, Holland is having fun coaching two players in Elimimian and Bighill he feels have only scratched the surface of their potential.

"They're professionals, they're great athletes, they have a passion for the game and they are very competitive," said Holland. "That's what you look for in a player. Those are the characteristics of a great player.

"They want it. They're hungry and they believe in themselves and they have a lot of confidence in what they're doing. It's fun to watch them play and get better every week. Even at the level they're at, they still have a lot of room to get better."

— Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

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