Who the heck is Justin McInnis? B.C. Lions receiver out to make a name for himself

There were three forgettable seasons in Saskatchewan for the best receiver in the 2019 CFL Draft, but they have been put behind him with a resurgent campaign with the B.C. Lions in 2023

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The text from a friend at the B.C. Lions game popped up on my phone late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, just as the Leos were about to cap their odds-defying comeback win over the Ottawa Redblacks.

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“Who the **** is Justin McInnis?”

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Well, if you don’t know, now you know.

The Lions receiver had just toe-tapped the sideline on a Bryan Burnham-esque 20-yard first-down catch, putting B.C. on Ottawa’s 34-yard line with 39 seconds left. Two plays and 17 seconds later, B.C. had capped their rally, scoring 20 points in the game’s 147 seconds to beat the Redblacks 41-37.

McInnis was the game’s top receiver, pulling in a career-high 118 yards on eight catches, along with two touchdowns. The second one, coming with 2:27 left in the game, cut Ottawa’s lead to 36-27 and set the stage for the Lions’ furious comeback.

The Pierrefonds, Que., native was signed as a free agent in the off-season to be a “Swiss Army knife.” Last Saturday, he was the switchblade that got stuck in the Redblacks’ guts during a back-alley robbery.

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The Saskatchewan Roughriders didn’t seem to know who he was, as they underused the 6-foot-5, 210 pound receiver and sixth overall pick from the 2019 CFL draft. McInnis suited up in 33 games over three seasons for the Riders, amassing just 596 yards and two touchdowns. Already in just 13 games with B.C., he has 543 yards and four touchdowns.

“Ten out of 10. I would rate it higher if I could,” the 27-year-old said of his move to B.C.

“I love it here. Every day when I wake up, I like coming in, I don’t mind waking up early. It’s just a great environment to be around, everyone just has a good vibe. It’s really special.

“The love from this organization and this city it’s just been awesome. To feel the constant appreciation that I get from the coaching staff and other members of the organization … it feels like home to be here.

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“I had a lot of playing opportunities (with Saskatchewan), but I wasn’t really getting the targets. I wasn’t really feeling too comfortable in the system. Three years and my production wasn’t that high, and talking to the guys here (in B.C.) over the off-season, they were super excited to get me here. It seemed like they had big plans for me and, it’s all paying off now.”

The diehard Leos fans who watched the pre-season games might remember his two-touchdown performance against the Stampeders, including a 31-yard catch in the end zone. That was a mirror-image preview of his first touchdown Saturday, when he fended off the clutching and grabbing from Redblacks defensive back Deandre Lamont to draw a pass interference flag but still securing the 19-yard score.

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He had 81 yards against the Toronto Argonauts and 79 yards against the Edmonton Elks this season, but has played a secondary role to incumbents Dominque Rhymes, Keon Hatcher, Alex Hollins, Lucky Whitehead and Jevon Cottoy.

Not last week. Hatcher was thrown to twice and Hollins five times, with the Lions’ two leading receivers combining for four catches and 41 yards. Meanwhile, McInnis was thrown to 12 times — his first double-digit focus game of the season.

“He’s a threat, man,” said quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. “He started off the year with us and he just makes plays. He’s been in this type of offence with (Riders offensive coordinator) Jason Maas, and it’s similar. But he’s a pro; he knows every single position. Guys get hurt in practice, and we say, ‘Hey, you’re moving from Y to Z or Z to W, and he already knows. He was one of the few guys that can do that as a team.”

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“Junior Headtop” (McInnis) was filling in for “Mr. Headtop” (the injured Rhymes) in the starting lineup, and showcased the same kind of contested pass-catching ability the regular starter does.

“Physically, just the mismatch. That’s what you first see when you see him,” said Lions coach Rick Campbell. “When he lines up against some DBs, he’s got like a foot height advantage on then. He’s has been such a solid person ever since he showed up here the first day in Kamloops. He’s been all business, been good with whatever role he was, as a starter, backup or whatever. We were lucky to get him.”

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B.C. Lions receiver Justin McInnis attempts a catch against Saskatchewan Roughriders during the first half of CFL football action in Regina, on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. Photo by Heywood Yu /The Canadian Press

It was perhaps foreshadowing that his best career game before joining the Lions came against them in 2022. It was a six-catch, 111-yard performance where he scored his team’s only touchdown in a 28-10 loss. B.C. has become home and last week was his housewarming party.

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“I’m still trying to grasp it. Honestly, just an amazing feeling. It’s been a slow start to my career — slower than I would have liked for sure,” he said. “In the moment, you’re making big catches and you’re not getting as excited as you probably should. But when the game is done and it’s finally zeros on the clock, and you realize you came away with that win, it makes it special that you were a big contributor to that.”


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B.C. Lions (9-4) at Edmonton Elks (4-10)

Friday, 6:30 p.m. PT, Commonwealth Stadium

TV: TSN. Radio: AM730

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