Surprisingly stalwart B.C. Lions defensive line gets stronger with the return of Woody Baron

“Initially we thought he would come back partway through training camp. Then it got to be the end of training camp. Then it had to be that he was on the six game (injured list). And so it took way longer than anyone anticipated — including him.” — Head coach Rick Campbell on the arrival of Woody Baron

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It’s all uncharted territory for Woody Baron.

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A new team, a new city, and a new experience.

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When the B.C. Lions signed the defensive tackle during the first few days of free agency in February, it was another move to address the team’s weakness in both the pass rush and against the run. With fellow signee Steven ‘Stove’ Richardson joining a position group of rapidly evolving sophomores, it looked like the defensive line would finally have some teeth.

Then Richardson was lost for the year, even before training camp. And Baron, 29, was close behind, after having off-season ankle surgery. The former Montreal Alouette was doing workouts in the off-season, when he felt his ankle losing stability. X-rays showed his bones were healthy, but the MRI showed his cartilage was wearing out, causing him issues with his balance and mobility.

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“Initially we thought he would come back partway through training camp. Then it got to be the end of training camp. Then it had to be that he was on the six game (injured list),” said head coach Rick Campbell. “And so it took way longer than anyone anticipated — including him.”



Calgary Stampeders vs. B.C. Lions

7 p.m., B.C. Place. TV: TSN. Radio: AM 730.

While the Lions were rocketing to a 9-3 start, Baron was stuck on the sidelines. No games, no practices. While the team was out on the practice field, dancing and joking to the music pumped over the loudspeakers, Baron was off to the side, working with resistance bands, balance boards and medicine balls.

He didn’t feel isolated or excluded, but his role as a spectator was — as he dropped the word for the 48th time in discussion Thursday — “new.”

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“It’s been new for me. I haven’t had to do it this way before,” said the 6-foot-1, 270-pound Chicago native.

“I’ve had to rehab and miss some time before, but not this much, and not this close to the beginning of this season. This whole season has been so new. Everything I’ve had to do has been something I’ve not done before.

“And it’s been new for me to be on a team that’s doing well — without you.”

The defensive front has taken massive strides this year, even without their big-ticket additions in Richardson and Baron.

Even the base metrics are starkly different than previous years.

B.C. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly (13) lies on top of Montreal Alouettes’ Woody Baron after rushing for a first down during the second half of a CFL football game in Vancouver, on Saturday Sept. 28, 2019.
B.C. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly (13) lies on top of Montreal Alouettes’ Woody Baron after rushing for a first down during the second half of a CFL football game in Vancouver, on Saturday Sept. 28, 2019. Photo by DARRYL DYCK /THE CANADIAN PRESS

B.C. was last in sacks (23) in 2021. The season before that, the Leos eked out 28, but could only boast being higher than Montreal’s total of 27. The run defence was also generally meek, 1,921 yards in 2019 (3rd most) and 1,471 in 2021 (4th most).

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In 2022, B.C. has given up just 16 rushing yards more than league-leading Hamilton (1,048). Only Saskatchewan (38) and Calgary (37) have more sacks than B.C. (35), and both teams have played two and one games more than the Lions.

Mathieu Betts, who had two sacks and 13 tackles in 19 games with Edmonton over two years, has seven sacks this season, same as rookie Sione Teuhema. Sophomore Obum Gwacham has five and David Menard both have five. It’s been production by committee.

Baron left Montreal partly because he felt they were building in the right direction in B.C., and because Campbell and co-GM Neil McEvoy made him feel valued. A $190,000 offer will do that.

But the clinching discussions came with B.C. defensive line coach John Bowman — whom Baron played with for two years in Montreal.

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And despite not playing this year, he’s still felt at home.

“I don’t have a training camp with these guys. Like the inside jokes that are established, they go over my head,” Baron said, chuckling.

“But it’s been a pretty flawless integration from when I first got here (to now). It’s very easy to feel at home in this locker room.

“When I got here, everybody was already clicking on all cylinders. And I just witnessed the whole process. I don’t have a ton of influence on it, I think but I think everybody in the room is capable of production and playing well.”

Baron’s 2021 numbers from Montreal were modest — 16 tackles, six sacks and one forced fumble in 14 games — but the talent scouts clearly saw more on film than the stats sheets showed. Still, it wasn’t until last week that Campbell got to see him operate in person in Leos colours.

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“He looked really good. We didn’t know what we were going to get. We didn’t know what he was going to look like, but he looks full speed,” said Campbell. “He looks really quick. He’s mainly an inside guy, but he has the versatility that if we want to put him on the outside, we could.

“If he translates how he’s practising into the game, he’s going to show up and do some stuff (against Calgary). We’re excited to get someone like him back at this point of the season, when we’re heading to the last third.”

The Stampeders boost the league’s best rushing attack with Ka’Deem Carey, who leads all running backs in yards (773), touchdowns (7), yards per carry (6.7) and 100-yard games (3). As a team, Calgary averages a CFL-high 109.7 yards per game.

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If there was an opportune time for Baron to return to active duty, Saturday’s game is it.

But the veteran lineman was philosophical about his return to the lineup, stepping in for the injured Teuhema behind Nathan Cherry.

“I’m just kind of taking my hands off the wheel, just kind of witnessing everything,” Baron said. “I think my role will become evident, but it’s all different from my perspective.

“It’s different than a lot of ways — maybe every way,” he added, comparing it to his only other CFL team. “My approach to the situation is kind of unorthodox. I’ve kind of let go of like outcomes and stuff. Just stay in the moment, whatever that looks like, appreciate your effort and respect where you are. No maybe chasing after where you feel you should be.

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“It’s hard enough trying to be perfect. The game is hard enough without you having to work against your own projection of yourself. There’s perfection in releasing control a little bit. If you give your best effort, whatever you produce is the perfect version. And rather than like trying to chase this flawless ideal of yourself — which you may not catch anyway — just go out there and do your best. It relieves a lot of pressure.”

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