Ahead of D game

WES GILBERTSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:27 AM ET

What a difference a year can make.

When the Calgary Stampeders kicked off their first training camp of the John Hufnagel era last June, the defence could've been featured on an episode of Extreme Makeover.

New defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones brought a new system, new attitude and plenty of new personnel to McMahon Stadium.

Twelve months ago, there were more question marks than answers. Not this time.

"There's a big difference. I feel like we're starting off a little further ahead than we were last year," said all-star cornerback Brandon Browner. "We're not having to learn a system, we're just refreshing."

If fans need a refresher of their own, the Stamps' defensive unit was pretty darn good last season.

Jones' brigade allowed just 21.5 points per game, the stingiest average in the league in '08, and surrendered the fewest touchdowns both on the ground (11) and through the air (24).

Only the Saskatchewan Roughriders gave up less yardage per game than the eventual Grey Cup champions.

Makes you wonder what the Stamps could possibly have in mind for an encore?

"We're building on top of what we had," said safety Wes Lysack, a seven-year CFL veteran and one of the Stampeders' defensive captains. "Last year, we were a young group learning the system and we were basically putting ourselves at a standard of the other top dogs in the league.

"Now, we're the top dogs in the league, in my opinion. We're the best defence, so we have to compare ourselves against ourselves and push ourselves to be better."

Seven of the Stampeders' top nine defensive tacklers from last season are back for another campaign in Calgary. The slate of returnees includes eight Grey Cup starters, a far cry from last season, when almost every job on the top unit was up for grabs in training camp.

The most notable departure was defensive end Charleston Hughes, who flew south to join the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. Free agent defensive lineman Eddie Freeman has yet to find a new football home, while middle linebacker Saleem Rasheed, who missed half the season with a shoulder injury, was released.

The rest of the key contributors are back and hungry to prove last season was no fluke.

"We're not satisfied with what we did last year," said defensive tackle Mike Labinjo. "It was great to be No. 1 and it was great to prove a lot of people wrong, but we know that people aren't 100 percent set on our defence, and we're going to take that challenge to be better than last year."

Perhaps the most crucial returnee on the defensive side of the ball is Jones, who instilled a ballhawk mentality in his troops last season and is preaching the same this summer.

The veterans are making sure the rookies know what's expected of them.

"We had a lot of success last year, so obviously, the mentality and the philosophy (Jones) has works," said linebacker Shannon James. "It works -- guys know that, it's obvious -- so it's not hard to buy into his system and his way of playing ball."


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