Courtney Stephen turns defensive demotion into Ticats special teams award

Other winners might have a higher 2018 profile and a better chance of advancing to the CFL East vs. West vote-off, but it’s Courtney Stephen who caught the coach’s eye.

The 29-year-old defensive back was named as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ Most Outstanding Special Teams player after the first round of the CFL’s player awards voting process.

Stephen, 29, is in his sixth Ticat season and had been a starter, mostly at safety, since late in his 2013 rookie season before Mike Daly ascended to the role during training camp. Stephen had always played well on special teams, but really stepped it up this season, at one point leading the entire league in special teams tackles.

He currently sits eighth, with 17.

“I think I’m most proud of Courtney of all the players because he went from being a starter, and he didn’t mope, he didn’t pout,” head coach June Jones said. “He applied himself and put team first and became our special teams player of the week, basically every week.”

Stephen is likely to start at safety for the first time this season in the Ticats’ final home game of the regular season, Saturday night against the Montreal Alouettes, as Jones rests a number of players. He did indicate that Daly will start the semifinal here against B.C., on Nov. 11.

Team award winners are chosen through secret ballot by six local voters — five Football Reporters of Canada members, plus the head coach — in each CFL city.

Other Ticat nominees who will advance to this weekend’s second round against the respective winners from the other three Eastern Conference teams are: quarterback Jeremiah Masoli (Most Outstanding Player); middle linebacker Larry Dean (Most Outstanding Defensive Player); defensive tackle Ted Laurent (Most Outstanding Canadian); left guard Brandon Revenberg (Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman); and right guard Darius Ciraco (Most Outstanding Rookie).

Jones says Masoli probably will not play against Montreal Saturday so he can rest a bruised knee. He leads the CFL in quarterback rating, ranks second in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns, and has set the franchise record for most games (12) of 300 or more passing yards. He has been a CFL top performer of the week three times and a performer of the month twice.

For the eastern nomination as MOP, Masoli is up against Ottawa quarterback Trevor Harris, Montreal linebacker Henoc Muamba, and Toronto wide receiver S.J. Green. Masoli seemed to have the East award locked up, and still may, but back-to-back must-wins by the Redblacks against the Ticats to clinch first place, precipitated by Harris’s throwing, has probably made that a tighter race than it was two weeks ago.

Dean, whose 105 defensive tackles are fourth-most ever by a Ticat and rank second overall in the CFL, has a very strong chance of advancing as this year’s eastern nominee. Last year he was both Hamilton’s top defensive player and MOP.

Laurent, who was the team’s top Canadian in 2014 and 2015, has eight sacks, tied for seventh in the CFL, and stands ninth on the Ticats’ career sack list. Burlington native Ciraco is the only member of the 2018 CFL draft class to start every game.

Ottawa placekicker Lewis Ward, who has been successful on 46 successful field goals in a row, an all-pro record, will likely become the eastern finalist for both rookie of the year and special team players. The Redblacks’ Brad Sinopoli broke the record for receptions for a Canadian receiver, so he is the heavy favourite in that category.

 Stephen is the first non-returner or non-kicker to be named the Ticats’ top special teams player since downfield specialist Marc Beswick in 2013. He echoed Jones’ evaluation that accepting the loss of starter status and dedicating himself to his new role was part of a team-first attitude

“It’s been a crazy ride, I’m just happy to be on the ride and be somebody who can contribute in any way I can,” Stephen said. “It’s more of a credit to my teammates for doing their roles.

“Give credit where credit’s due, man. It was not an accident what’s happened: Mike Daly’s been having a great season; he’s been leading that defence that’s at the top of the CFL in a lot of categories.

I get in where I fit in. Everyone is selfless on this team.”

Steve Milton

Steve Milton

Steve Milton is a long-time columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2012.
Steve Milton
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Steve Milton
About Steve Milton (239 Articles)
Steve Milton is a long-time columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2012.