Changes on the Line Could Key Ticats’ Success

CFL Montreal Alouettes Hamilton Tiger CatsOver the course of the next few weeks, as the Ticats open training camp and start the preseason, we will analyze how each positional group looks heading into the upcoming season. Today, we look at a group that does not garner much in the way of headlines: the offensive line.

Last season was not a banner year for the Ticats’ offensive line. The 10-sack debacle in Regina to open the season, the near-constant lineup adjustments that followed and the worst red-zone offense in the league were just some of the issues the Ticats’ offensive line dealt with in 2014. It was not until near the end of the year when the Ticats finally found some sense of cohesion amongst the hogs (though the red zone troubles never really got better, as evidenced by the team’s inability to score from inside the five-yard line in last year’s Grey Cup). But last year was last year, and the Ticats hope that with a few changes, some external and some internal, the offensive line can once again be a strength for the team.

The biggest differences between last year’s group and this year’s group is the addition of two Canadians, Ryan Bomben and Peter Dyakowski. Bomben was acquired from the Montreal Alouettes on draft day and will step right into a starting role at guard. The former Guelph Gryphon enters his sixth season in the CFL and brings the type of versatility that Kent Austin craves. Bomben has the ability to play all three positions on the offensive line, so the team will not have to adjust their ratio during the game should a Canadian player get hurt. It is the type of luxury the team did not have last season and the reason why trading for Bomben was a smart decision by Hamilton’s braintrust.

Peter Dyakowski’s return is also a welcome one. Canada’s Smartest Person did not play until the very end of the season last year after suffering a devastating injury in the 2013 Grey Cup. Dyakowski is one the team’s best lineman, and his loss was felt throughout the 2014 season. All reports are that he is fully recovered from the injury and will look to return to the form that saw him become one of the league’s premier interior linemen.

The return of Dyakowski has far-reaching effects on the rest of the line. For starters, it allows for Tim O’Neill to slot into a role much more suited for him: that of the sixth man. At 35, O’Neill did the best he could after being thrust into a starting role for most of last season. With the addition of Bomben and the return of Dyakowski, O’Neill is now free from the burden of starting and can contribute to the team in a much larger capacity.

The changes at guard have a ripple effect on the rest of the line, as Brian Simmons will kick back out to tackle, a position he played during his first three seasons with the Ticats. Simmons was a divisional all-star last year at guard and should have been a league one, so moving him from back to tackle is not ideal. You never want to see an all-star player switch positions, but Simmons is also an excellent tackle, so the move should not have any adverse effects on the team. It also means that Joel Figueroa and Jake Olson, both starters for much of 2014, will be battling it out for the other tackle spot. While Figueroa should have the inside track, expect Olson to make a push to supplant the former Miami Hurricane.

The centre position will once again be manned by Mike Filer, who had the unenviable task of replacing fan favourite Marwan Hage last season. No matter how well Filer played, he was never going to live up to the standard Hage set during his decade-long run in Hamilton. Filer had his ups and downs during the season, but he seemed to settle in as the year progressed. The centre position is easily the toughest one to learn — ask any centre, they will tell you — and it takes time to master. Some fans have piled on Filer for his mistakes, but the only way for Filer to get better is to play. Yes, he had some bad snaps, but in what turned out to the final game of Hage’s career, he sent a snap sailing by then-quarterback Henry Burris in the 2013 Grey Cup. Bad snaps and mistakes can happen to any centre and the more Filer plays, the fewer mistakes he will make. Kent Austin is not one to sit idly by as a player makes the same errors over and over again, so if Filer does not correct the problems, he will be replaced. That is unlikely to happen and the team is hopefully going to be rewarded for sticking by the former Mount Allison Mountie.

The team also hopes that some of their young offensive lineman can begin to develop and possibly compete for starting jobs. Jeremy Lewis, Landon Rice, Carson Rockhill and former defensive lineman Matthieu Girard are all players the team is high on and it will be interesting to see how they do in camp and the preseason. It is doubtful that any will steal a job from one of the five presumed starters this season, one, if not more, of these players could be future starters for the Ticats. They are all worth keeping an eye on during training camp and the preseason.

Offensive line is not a position that generates many headlines, and when it does it is usually for all the wrong reasons. Hamilton’s line made news last year for many of the wrong reasons, but the hope is that with a few changes the struggles of a season ago will not be repeated. Continuity is usually key on for the big boys up front, but having the right players is also of major importance. While Hamilton will be a little light on continuity at the start of the season, the belief is that once they jell they finally have the right complement of players to make the offensive line a feared unit once again.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.