Going into training camp, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have more answers than questions – and that’s a good thing.
The team is coming off two straight Grey Cup appearances and heading into the third season under vice-president of football operations Kent Austin, which means the roster – and, more importantly, the organizational philosophy – is a full representation of his vision.
This is now Austin’s team on every level.
Of the 46 players on the roster for last season’s championship game, 42 are back – including 22 of 24 starters – so the Ticats start the season with a number of key pieces already in place.
That said, injuries and the emergence of new talent will inevitably bring some change. With that in mind, let’s take a position-by-position look at the 2015 Ticats as camp begins.
While the Ticats have themselves a bona fide starter in Zach Collaros – who played at an elite level from Labour Day on last season – the situation behind him is far from set. The three other quarterbacks currently on the roster have started a grand total of two CFL starts among them.
Jeremiah Masoli started last season as the No. 2 man and took over the starting job when Collaros went down with a concussion in Week 2. That experiment lasted two games before he was replaced by the now-departed Dan LeFevour, and Masoli had been bumped all the way down to No. 3 by the time the stretch run arrived. Still, if the season started today, Masoli would likely be the back up by default.
But expect sophomore Jacory Harris to make a strong push for the job. He spent last season learning the complex system run by Austin and offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell and has impressed the organization with his smarts and commitment. Newly-signed Jeff Matthews, who played for the Austin-Condell tandem at Cornell, will likely need some time to adjust to the CFL game.
The two pre-season games will go a long way to determining who begins the season as Collaros’ understudy.
The Ticats have excellent depth at this position with C.J. Gable, the 2013 East Division most outstanding rookie, Nic Grigsby (who likely should have won the award last year), and second-year man Mossis Madu. But make no mistake: if Gable is healthy, the job is his to lose.
Foot and shoulder problems limited Gable to just seven games last year but the Ticats showed their faith in him by inking him to a contract extension in the off-season. His unparalleled versatility – he can run, catch passes out of the backfield and is excellent in pass protection – makes him a perfect fit for Austin’s offence.
The Ticats also signed Canadian Anthony Woodson, who will likely see some time in certain offensive packages but will fill a valuable backup role behind the American starter.
A lack of depth behind fullback C.O. Prime – who was remarkably durable last season – is also a concern.
Luke Tasker and Andy Fantuz can likely be written in as starters, but Fantuz’s durability – he hasn’t played a full season since joining the Ticats in 2012 – remains a concern. Brandon Banks will certainly see some time on offence but can’t be an every-down player given his contribution on special teams.
After that, it’s something of a free-for-all with a mix that includes veteran Bakari Grant, experienced guys such as Quincy McDuffie and Terrell Sinkfield, and newcomers like Tiquan Underwood and Terence Tolliver. There’s plenty of skill there but how it shakes out will be one of the story lines to watch in training camp.
The loss of Sam Giguere to free agency means the team will start just one Canadian receiver (they started two for most of the last two seasons), and the depth behind Fantuz is untested. A season-ending Achilles injury to free agent acquisition Spencer Watt leaves the team with S.J. Haidara, Giovanni Aprile and Matt Coates, who have a combined nine career catches between them.
The acquisition of veteran Ryan Bomben in a draft-day trade with Montreal and the return of a fully healthy Pete Dyakowski gives the Ticats two legit starting guards to bookend centre Mike Filer, while veteran Tim O’Neill and youngsters Landon Rice and Carson Rockhill provide some depth.
After playing guard much of last season, look for all-star Brian Simmons to move back to tackle while Joel Figueroa, Jake Olson and Jeremy Lewis battle it out for the other starting spot.
Another position of strength for the Ticats, who return all four starters from the Grey Cup game – tackles Ted Laurent and Bryan Hall, ends Justin Hickman and Eric Norwood – and benefit from the return of Brian Bulcke, who missed the latter half of last season due to injury.
Even with the season-ending injury to Linden Gaydosh, the Ticats have plenty of depth at Canadian tackle with Michael Atkinson, Hasan Hazime and Evan Gill (when he’s fully recovered from knee surgery.)
The only thing the Ticats need from camp is some depth behind Hall and the two defensive ends.
Again, this unit returns intact with all-star Simoni Lawrence patrolling the weak side, Taylor Reed in the middle and strong starter Erik Harris all back this season. The addition of veteran Johnny Sears gives the Ticats another option at the SAM position, and newcomer Dan Molls is a player to watch in the middle.
Hamilton also has a plethora of young Canadian linebackers, led by Frederic Plesius, who could give the team another option if it needs to make a ratio change. The team also believes that rookie Byron Archambault also has the potential to be a starter down the road.
Veterans Brandon Stewart and Ed Gainey saw some time there during OTAs and would appear to be early contenders, though the team has also brought in a number of American defensive backs to audition.
Expect Rico Murray to find a spot on defence somewhere – he’s versatile enough to play three spots – while safety Craig Butler and corner Courtney Stephen provide the club with two solid Canadian starters in the secondary. While the team has solid depth behind Butler, there doesn’t appear to be another national corner who could fill Stephen’s spot if he goes down.
With Banks, McDuffie and Sinkfield, the Ticats have three players who returned kicks for touchdowns last season and should well positioned to take advantage of the new special team rules that emphasize the return game.
How the coverage teams adapt to the new rules is a question teams across the league are facing, and the Ticats will need to get the most out of big-bodied Canadians like Beau Landry, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Archambault.