Lions' Willis evolves from knucklehead to top of CFL's Mount Sackmore
They almost sound like dance moves — the swim, the twist, the dip, the bullrush, the forklift, the speed rush or the slap — and when executed properly, they’re usually followed by actual dance moves.
When Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan broke out the little-used “Coffee House” technique against the Washington Redskins on Sunday, clips of his sneaky sack — and obligatory post-play shimmy — flooded Twitter.
B.C. Lions defensive end Odell Willis has seen the move before. He’s probably even used it before, too, as one of the most prodigious quarterback hunters in the CFL.
After 11 seasons in the league, he cracked the 100-sack plateau last week against the Ottawa Redblacks, reaching the venerate heights of “Mount Sackmore,” populated by the mere 12 players in history to reach triple digits.
“Yeah. (The Coffee House) has been around for a long time. As long as me,” Willis said Wednesday. “Pass rushing is an art. You can’t just come out here and run through someone; it’s an art.
“But at the end of the day, you only need two (moves): the fastball and the change-up. Doesn’t matter how you use it, you only need two. It’s combat. It’s basically self-defence, in a sense.
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when someone puts their hands on you? Once you figure out what you’re going to do, that’s how you grow your tool box and work from there. Some guys like to swim, some guys like to rip, some guys like to spin; you just have to find what works for you.”
The 6-2, 255-pound, 34-year-old had a solid if unspectacular four-year stay at the University of West Georgia, picking up two all-conference selections. But when the NFL didn’t come calling after graduation, he found himself in Arena League 2 making $200 a game before the league folded.
Willis took a leap of faith and gave the CFL a shot, and after cracking the Calgary Stampeders’ lineup, recorded six sacks in his first nine games.
“As a former D-lineman myself, 100 sacks is … a lot. The craziest part is I was with Odell when he got the first six,” said B.C. Lions coach DeVone Claybrooks, who was in his final two CFL seasons as a player during their shared time in Calgary.
“He’s been a dream to work with. When I first met him, he was this knucklehead who didn’t want to take any leadership, didn’t want to take no coaching, and now he’s the guy I lean on to help coach and groom these younger guys. It’s definitely come full circle.
“One of the things, when you get into this business that you like to see young men turn to grown men. That’s the epitome of that. You got a guy who was a knucklehead, and now he’s matured,” he added of Willis, whom he’s dubbed his “Super Old G.”
Willis has resumed the ‘9-11’ partnership with Sean Lemon this season — referring to their combined jersey numbers — after it was interrupted by Lemon’s departure to Toronto for four games to start 2019. The two combined for 21 sacks last year, but since returning to B.C. in August, Lemon has collected six of his seven sacks, while Willis broke through with his first in nine weeks to boost his season total to three.
“I look at my Old G status from my experience, and the things that I’ve been through in this league,” said Willis. “Body-wise, I feel great, even though — just being real — there’s a step that’s been lost. At the end of the day, you have to have the get-off.”
While Willis is looking to have a late-season resurgence, the Lions defence as a whole has shown signs of life. A unit that ranks seventh in opposition points (23.9) and touchdowns surrendered (33) gave up just six points total in the past two games — admittedly against the offensively impotent Redblacks.
Saturday’s game against the Montreal Alouettes, the East Division’s second-place squad, is a chance to show it’s not a fluke.
“We’ve been growing all year,” said B.C. cornerback T.J. Lee, whose team gives up the third-fewest yards per game (332.8) but ranks second-last in turnovers forced (21) and worst in opposition red-zone percentage (65 per cent).
“It’s always come down to the details in terms of giving up plays. That’s football; it only takes one or two plays for the defence to have a so-called bad game. So for us to clean it up, and limit those deep plays and not give up touchdowns, that’s amazing.
“As long as we get a good push up front, because that’s where the game starts, and get cover on the back end, it’s going to be another great game for us (on Saturday).”
Working in the Lions’ favour are two factors: the Als’ lousy record at B.C. Place Stadium — they’re 2-17 their last 19 visits, with the last win coming in 2015 — and the suspension of starting quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another in Montreal’s 21-16 home win three weeks ago.
Stepping in for Adams will be third-year backup Matthew Shiltz, he of the career totals of 65-of-107 passing, 686 yards, two TDs and seven interceptions.
Claybrooks said he has stressed to his players they can’t take their foot off the gas, not after getting just one win — by a single point, remember — in their first 11 games. Two wins in a row does not a season make.
“Have you seen our record against backup quarterbacks? That’s an easy sell for my guys, to be completely honest,” said the Lions’ first-year coach, who can count four losses to No. 2 QBs among this year’s defeats.
“I brought it up yesterday the fact that we can’t feel ourselves or think we’re all this and all that when we’ve lost to numerous backup quarterbacks. So that’s definitely been a point of emphasis.
“I have no problem giving them a dose of humble pie. But I also have the leaders who kept us together through those turbulent times, and those leaders understand that you can’t go out there and not do the details and little things that got you where you are.
“You also want to send a message to everyone else that you’re playing well, and it’s not the opponent, it’s because of what we’re doing.”
B.C. Lions vs. Montreal Alouettes
7 p.m., B.C. Place Stadium, TV: TSN; Radio: TSN 1040 AM
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