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Ed Willes: It's still all about winning for Wally Buono

It is the second day of the B.C. Lions mini-camp and Wally Buono is in his element.

He coaches defensive lineman Luther Maddy on a finer point of rushing the passer. He keeps a close eye on offensive lineman David Foucault, a potential ratio-changer for the Leos. He watches quarterbacks Bryan Scott and Alex Ross serve up a series of inelegant passes to no one in particular while monitoring the progress of Steven Clarke, the import who’s pencilled in as the Lions’ starting safety this season.

It’s been five months since Buono was on the field with his guys and his enthusiasm for this moment is unjaded by his five decades in the Canadian game. Afterwards, he’ll tell a story from the Lions’ recently concluded free-agent camp in Atlanta where a sprightly senior was seen walking around and talking to the players.

Turns out it was Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson, Buono’s former teammate with the Alouettes from 36 years ago.

“This is what you work all those months for, to see these guys come out and compete,” Buono says. “Whether you’re 47, 57, 67 (the coach’s age if you must know), this is who you are. This is what excites you.”

Buono is asked if he’s concerned about the rust factor on Foucault, who sat out most of the last two years after making the Carolina Panthers as a rookie.

“We’re all rusty,” he says. “I am. You are. My back’s killing me.”

Funny. It didn’t show.

This week, Buono started what figures to be his last season as a CFL coach but if he’s preoccupied with his impending retirement he does a good job of hiding it. His priority, as always, is the Lions and with the main training camp now just a month away, there is work to be done.

OK, Buono doesn’t know the names of most of the players at the mini-camp and only a handful figure to be around when the season starts. But he has big plans for a couple of them and hopes to be surprised by a couple more, which explains why he’s so invested in this process.

“It’s been a good two days,” he says. “It helps you evaluate players you haven’t seen much and it gives them a feel for what you’re all about. It starts the process of integrating the team.”

So what’s he looking for at this camp?

“It doesn’t change,” he says. “The guys who jump out at you are good athletes. Now you hope they’re good football players.”

And there’s a couple of athletes at this camp.

Foucault, for example, is a 6-foot-8, 315-pound offensive lineman who the Lions acquired from the Alouettes for Jovan Olafioye. Taken fifth overall by the Als in the 2014 draft, the Montrealer instead headed to the NFL where, against all odds, he made the Panthers’ 53-man roster, dressed for five games and started one playing left tackle in front of Cam Newton.

That, unfortunately, is the lone entry on the back of Foucault’s playing career. He spent most of 2015 on the Panthers’ practice squad before he was waived last year and failed to catch on with another NFL team.

This off-season, the Lions dealt Olafioye, who’s on the short list of the CFL’s best offensive lineman, for Foucault and gave him a three-year contract. If everything goes according to plan, he will allow the Lions to play four non-import offensive linemen this season.

“It’s fun just to compete and play football,” said Foucault. “It’s been a while.”

Foucault also enlivened Wednesday’s scrimmage by scrapping with defensive lineman Marquis Jackson. Couldn’t be sure but Buono seemed to be smiling as the fight was broken up.

Clarke, meanwhile, is taking the reps at free safety, signalling a huge change in the secondary. The Lions had hoped to play Ryan Phillips at that spot last year but the plan went awry and Phillips signed with the Alouettes this off-season.

This year, Clarke, T.J. Lee and Ronnie Yell all return to the defensive backfield after missing most of last season with injuries. Throw in non-import Keynan Parker who projects as a starter at the field corner spot and this could be the Lions’ most improved area.

“We’re excited,” said Clarke. “We’ve got a big chip on our shoulder. All three of us are competing to be the comeback player of the year.”

Defensive lineman Frank Alexander, meanwhile, is making his own comeback under different circumstances. Alexander, a former standout at Oklahoma, spent three seasons with the Panthers before he failed his third drug test in November of 2015 and was suspended for a year. The violations were for marijuana.

No biggie says Buono, although Alexander’s huge potential might have altered Buono’s stance on this matter.

“We don’t even test for that now and it’s going to be legal in our country,” said the coach.

No, Buono will measure Alexander by the metric he applies to all his players. Can he help us win? This might be the beginning of the end for the old coach but that never changes.

ewilles@postmedia.com

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http://vancouversun.com/sports/football/cfl/bc-lions/ed-willes-its-still-all-about-winning-for-wally-buono