Morris: Lions’ 1-2 punch only getting better

The fireworks come on game day, but for quarterback Michael Reilly and wide receiver Lucky Whitehead the fuse is lit during the week of practice.

Reilly and Whitehead have looked very polished in the BC Lions’ first seven games of the CFL season, connecting on several highlight-reel plays. But both agree they remain a work-in-progress.

“We’ve kind of had to figure it out on the fly and it’s worked pretty good, but we’re still building that chemistry every single week,” said Reilly. “We’re still working in that direction. I still think that me and him have a long way to go.

“That just shows you what I think the celling is.”

Whitehead said the pair are making up for lost time after Reilly was sidelined during training camp with a sore elbow. That’s why each day of practice is so important.

“We’re getting better every week,” said Whitehead, who joined the Lions as a free agent in February after winning a Grey Cup with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2019. “It was kind of tough during (training) camp because he didn’t practice as much.

“We’re definitely getting it together. I know where I need to be out there on the field. He’ll put (the ball)  there and I should be there to make the catch.”

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The pair hope to add to their league-leading statistics when the Lions (4-3) host the Bombers (6-1) at BC Place Friday night.

Heading into this week Reilly had completed 147 of 198 passes for a CFL-leading 1,860 yards. He was tied for second with 10 touchdown passes and will be the only quarterback playing who has thrown just one interception.

Whitehead leads the league with 665 receiving yards, including a CFL-high 339 yards after the catch. He is second with four touchdowns and third with 36 catches.  The 29-year-old also returned a missed field goal 119 yards for a touchdown.

Their efforts over the last month resulted in Reilly and Whitehead, along with Hamilton’s Simoni Lawrence, being named the CFL Top Performers for the month of September.

Whitehead showed his speed and vision in last week’s 31-24 loss to Saskatchewan when he turned an innocent looking catch behind the line of scrimmage into a 47-yard touchdown run.

“I don’t know if anybody else in the league has that level of speed, which makes our offence much more dangerous as a vertical threat,” said Reilly. “It’s not just raw speed, it’s talented speed.

“There are guys that can run that fast but can’t play the position as well as he can. He’s a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball. He’s a threat all over the field.”

Learning how to harness that speed and turn it into a weapon is something Reilly and Whitehead continue to work on.

“You learn that in practice,” said Whitehead. “We just get the feeling. Getting to know our timing is definitely key.”

Geroy Simon, the former Lion who is the CFL’s all-time leader with 16,352 receiving yards, understands the importance of building trust between a quarterback and receiver.

“The quarterback has to trust that the receiver he’s throwing the ball to is going to catch it and do something with it,” said Simon, BC’s director of global scouting and US regional scout.

“The receiver has to trust the quarterback (is going ) to protect them because sometimes you can get put in different and bad positions by bad throws.”

A receiver like BC’s  Bryan Burnham, who is six-foot-one and 205 pounds, can use his size and strength to create separation from a defender. That gives them a bigger catch radius.

“Michael can just throw the ball in the roundabout area and Bryan is going to come down with it regardless if he’s covered or not,” said Simon.

At five-foot-10 and 177 pounds, Whitehead relies on  speed to beat people.

“Lucky isn’t a big guy, his catch radius isn’t as big as Bryan’s,” said Simon. “You have to have a little bit more pinpoint accuracy.”

Reilly has been impressed with Whitehead’s work ethic.

“It’s hard to trust a guy and to give them opportunities if all he does is show up on game day,” said Reilly. “Lucky is not that guy. He shows up every single day and puts the work in so that when you go out there on game day you know what to  expect from him, which is great to have.

“His energy is infectious because he shows up and he’s ready to work every single day. Other guys gravitate toward that and it makes everybody else ready to work.”

Simon believes the relationship between Reilly and Whitehead has room to grow.

“Once they have a better understanding of one another, Michael can start to throw balls with more blind faith,” said Simon. “He doesn’t have to see Lucky open. He can anticipate when Lucky is breaking  and throw it.”

Whitehead turned heads during his first CFL season with the Bombers. In 15 regular season games he had 52 catches for 521 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a touchdown and returned a kickoff for major.

When the 2020 season was cancelled due to COVID-19 it gave Whitehead the chance to concentrate on making himself a better player.

“I wanted to get my skills to where I needed to be as far as a complete football player, not just a gadget guy that can come in and someone that was fast,” he said. “I wanted respect as a receiver because I knew I can catch the ball, knew I could run routes.”

Whitehead spent a lot of time in the gym and quit drinking for 18 months.

“I’m more disciplined than I was in 2019,” he said. “My body just felt amazing coming into the season. I’m playing football games and after the game I feel like I didn’t get touched.”

Whitehead is looking forward to playing against his old teammates this week, especially defensive back Mike Jones, his former roommate, and wide receiver Rasheed Bailey, a close friend.

“It’s going to be fun out there, talk trash and play football,” he said.

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