KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Mark Washington's ears are ringing a little less than usual at B.C. Lions' training camp.
The club's defensive co-ordinator has been steadily implementing his systems this week, but there are two big holes — not to mention big personalities — missing from the group with the off-season departures of linebacker Adam Bighill and defensive back Ryan Phillips.
"It is different to have those vacancies there," said Washington, adding jokingly: "The sound is different, or the lack of sound is different.
"But it's OK. I wish those guys the best."
Bighill, a rock in the middle for the Lions alongside Solomon Elimimian, signed with the NFL's New Orleans Saints in January thanks to an out clause in his contract after the 28-year-old's six seasons in B.C. where he registered 489 defensive tackles and 33 sacks.
Phillips, meanwhile, was released prior to free agency in February following a disagreement on a new deal and his future deployment before subsequently inking with the Montreal Alouettes.
The 34-year-old had played all of his previous 12 seasons with the Lions, grabbing 47 interceptions and adding 478 tackles while missing just four of a possible 216 games.
"I played with Bigs for six years, Ryan for seven," said Elimimian, the league's most outstanding player in 2014. "It goes past football. You get to know their families and they become like brothers."
The CFL's top defender in both 2014 and again last season added that seeing his friends leave was just another reminder of the realities of professional football.
"One year you're here and the next year you're not," said Elimimian. "We all understand that. It doesn't change our relationship outside football. We're very close, but it's different."
While there appears to be a number of options in the secondary to take over for Phillips, Lions head coach and general manager Wally Buono was philosophical when asked specifically how he plans to replace Bighill, who won the CFL's defensive MVP honours in 2015.
"Who was Adam Bighill seven years ago? Who was Solomon Elimimian nine years ago?" Buono responded. "You find new players. Adam's a great football player, but hopefully you'll be talking about the guy who replaced him and how productive he was and what a bright future he has."
Heading into his second camp with B.C., Cam Ontko appears to have the early inside track on filling Bighill's enormous shoes at weakside linebacker, while Tony Burnett is another candidate after signing in February from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
"We have good athletes here," Buono continued. "Some of them have the same characteristics as Adam. They have tremendous work ethic. You've got to have some athleticism.
"That's the one thing, when you look out there, that we have."
But the holes on defence go beyond Bighill and Phillips, with no fewer than half the starters from the 2016 unit that put up some pretty good numbers now elsewhere.
Defensive linemen Jabar Westerman (Winnipeg) and Alex Bazzie (released by the Carolina Panthers on Tuesday) bolted for new opportunities, while safety Mike Edem was traded to the Saskatchewan Roughriders and corner Brandon Stewart was cut.
B.C. allowed the fewest yards against last season and tied for the league lead in sacks with 52, but had a CFL-low nine interceptions — an area both Buono and Washington, a defensive back during his playing days, have keyed on as crucial if the team is to improve on its 12-6 record in 2016.
"We want to be better," Washington said after a practice session under the steaming late-morning sun at Thompson Rivers University. "The gentlemen out here are young players. They're quick, they're strong, they're powerful. They're becoming more and more of a team every single day.
"I'm excited to see where these young men end up."
Washington said there will probably be some growing pains as new leaders emerge to replace the likes of Bighill and Phillips — who were like coaches on the field — but he expects his defence to be firing on all cylinders by the time the Lions open the regular season at home on June 24 against the Edmonton Eskimos.
"We know that we're going to be challenged in certain ways," said Washington, set to begin his 10th year as a member of the Lions' staff. "As long as we play together, as long as we play as one, these guys will find a way to get through."
It will just have to be a lot of different guys.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press