Coming off a serious knee injury, Clarke ready to step up for Lions in 2017

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SURREY, B.C. — Steven Clarke could be the beneficiary of a radical shift in thinking by the B.C. Lions.

Coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the defensive back was moving well and turned some heads at the club’s recent minicamp when he lined up at free safety some eight months after the serious knee injury.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Clarke said following one of last week’s on-field sessions. “I’m definitely having fun with it.”

The free safety position in B.C. has been reserved for a Canadian in recent years, but head coach and general manager Wally Buono said he has no issue using an American if it helps the Lions improve on their CFL-low nine interceptions from 2016.

“The one thing that we didn’t do enough of last year is we didn’t get enough turnovers,” said Buono. “I’m not putting the blame on one individual, but we’ve got to find ways to be able to do that.

“If we have to use coverages that maybe allow us to use more of a cover guy then so be it.”

Mike Edem was signed to play free safety last season, but the hard-hitting Brampton, Ont., product had just two picks in 17 games.

The Lions also drafted Montreal’s Anthony Thompson with an eye towards developing him into another Canadian safety, however there appears to be a change in thinking heading into training camp, which starts at the end of the month in Kamloops, B.C.

Whether the shift in philosophy actually takes hold could come down to whether or not the Lions start an extra Canadian on the offensive line or at wide-side corner, in turn opening up additional spots for U.S.-born players elsewhere.

“I’m comfortable in improving our football club,” said Buono. “We’re going to have different options to look at.”

A native of Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., Clarke started 15 games for B.C. in 2015 and rejoined the Lions last spring after a brief stint with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.

The 26-year-old regained his starting role when fellow halfback T.J. Lee was lost for the year with a torn Achilles tendon in July, but would himself go down with his injury just a month later.

“Really frustrated, because as a player you know you had a big off-season,” said Clarke. “You worked really, really hard.

“Injuries happen, but you just have to fight back and get ready for the next opportunity.”

While the Lions had a good overall statistical campaign on defence, tying for the league lead in sacks and allowing the fewest combined yards in 2016, the lack of interceptions was a glaring problem.

“Nowhere close to being enough,” said Clarke, who has one pick in 22 career games. “That’s one of the things we’ve talked about this year — putting ourselves in position to get more interceptions (by) challenging routes and jumping more routes.”

Clarke said that along with Lee and Ronnie Yell, a corner who broke his foot in late August, he’s looking forward to getting back into a secondary that was decimated last season and as a result often seemed to have a bend-but-don’t-break mentality.

“We’ve definitely got a big chip on our shoulder,” said Clarke, who declared his knee 100 per cent healthy thanks to some rigorous training. “All three of us are competing to see who’s going to be the comeback player of the year.

“We’re getting after it.”

But it’s also a unit that will be without veteran Ryan Phillips for the first time in 12 seasons after he was released in February before signing with the Montreal Alouettes.

“It’s definitely going to be a big difference,” said Clarke. “We all look up to him as a big brother.

“It’s going to be a big impact without him. We just have to keep the ball rolling.”

And hopefully intercept a couple more balls in the process.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press