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Yurichuk and Bighill battle for open middle linebacker spot with B.C. Lions

Yurichuk celebrates after recovering a Calgary Stampeders fumble during the second half of a CFL game in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday October 8, 2011.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

According to popular belief, at least in B.C. Lions circles, nobody can replace departed middle linebacker Solomon Elimimian.

But training camp hopefuls James Yurichuk and Adam Bighill are going to try.

The two young Lions are battling for the starting linebacker position with the defending Grey Cup champions in wake of Elimimian's departure to the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.

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In two seasons with B.C., Elimimian quickly established himself as an exceptionally quick and heavy-hitting middle 'backer. He took home Western Division and CFL rookie of the year honours in 2010 and had another outstanding season in 2011 as he helped the Lions overcome a 0-5 start to win the CFL title.

The expectations on Yurichuk, a 25-year-old Brampton, Ont., native who is entering his fourth season with the Lions, and Bighill, a 23-year-old Montesano, Wash., native commencing his second CFL campaign, are much more modest. But the difficulties — and importance — of the position are no different.

"Solly's a great player," said Yurichuk. "I'm just relishing the opportunity. I'm just going to do my best (and) show my coaches, show my teammates and show the league what I can do."

Yurichuk's competitor for the open position shares his positive outlook.

"It's the best situation I could ask for with Solomon gone," said Bighill. "As good as Solomon was, you're not going to get a shot behind Solomon. You knew when he was playing. He was a great player and he did great things. Backing up him and learning things was great. Now it's my time to try to put it on the field — show what I know, show what I can do and try to impress somebody."

Yurichuk is the heir apparent to take over as No. 1. However, coach Mike Benevides will not necessarily anoint a starter. Instead, defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler's complex coverage schemes will see many different looks and player faces, depending on the down.

Yurichuk has played mostly on special teams since the Lions selected him fourth overall in the Canadian college draft in 2009 after his standout four-year career at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Que. But he started three games last season as a weak-side line backer.

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"They're reasonably close cousins — not too much of a difference," said Yurichuk. "You're just little bit more physical in the middle. There's a little bit of a difference in the pass (coverage) dropping, but it's very similar to the weak-side position."

Bighill, who also played mostly on special teams last season, earned a contract after impressing at a free agent camp in Portland, Ore., prior to the 2011 season. An only child whose mother died of a heart attack when he was 13, the Central Washington University alumnus has fought adversity for much of his life to reach the CFL.

"I overcame a lot," he said. "Most people said I shouldn't even be here. You know, five-10, 225 (pounds), they looked at me and said: 'What can you do?' But I proved to them otherwise. I've got a lot of things going for me that nobody can match."

Yurichuk and Bighill do not match up physically. The Canadian, listing himself as six-foot-three and 220 pounds, is tall and lanky. The American is short and stocky.

Neither one fits the decades-old prototype of the burly CFL middle linebacker, such as former Lions Alondra Johnson and Barrin Simpson. In the old days, a middle linebacker who stood over six feet tall and weighed upwards of 250 pounds was the rule rather than the exception.

But Yurichuk believes he still has the necessary brawn, and his height will pose difficulties for quarterbacks that try to throw the ball over him.

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"The scale doesn't lie," said Yurichuk, who recorded 40 tackles last season while also making two fumble recoveries. "I look like a skinny guy, but I'm still 230. Football is an evolving game. It's such a passing game these days that you've gotta be able to keep up with those receivers going across the middle and stuff. Being tall and lanky, that helps me keep my speed up and be able to accomplish those things."

Added Bighill: "It's all about speed now. The game has changed. It's no longer smash-mouth football every down. It's speed. So you need somebody who can cover the field sideline to sideline, especially up here in the Canadian game. It's 65 yards wide, so you've gotta be able to run; you've gotta be able to hit; you've gotta be explosive.

"I cover all of those qualities. I think that's why I'm here and why they like me."

Coach Mike Benevides concurs, because teams are using different offensive points of attack with the advent of the tailback and efforts to create mismatches in speed.

"If you look across our league now, there is not a sort of prototypical middle linebacker, because the league has changed," said Benevides.

Nationality can sometimes be the determining factor when it comes to earning a starting job as clubs strive to comply with the league's Canadian-and-import ratio. However, Benevides said he will go with the best middle linebacker available, regardless of his passport.

Although Benvides is not ready to name a starter, he indicated Yurichuk has the best chance based on his longer tenure with the Lions.

"He's got an opportunity to step up," said Benevides. "He's going to have to show us that this is (his) opportunity to take."

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