Hamilton’s D-Line Could Be League’s Best

Winnipeg Blue Bombers v 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 may just be the league’s best: the defensive line.

The running theme of these pieces have essentially been about how good the Ticats are. That should come as no surprise. They are the two-time reigning, defending, undisputed East Division champions, so to say the team is good would be a bit of an understatement. You do not find yourself in back-to-back Grey Cups purely by luck.

Also, these entries are written by a Ticats fan on a Ticats-dedicated blog, so there may just a smidgen or two of bias.

That said, bias or not, the defensive line for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, as a group, is as good as any in the league and it could reasonably be argued that they are the best in the entire CFL.

The interior of Hamilton’s line is both stock full of all-star-calibre players and a plethora of national talent. The Ticats have three players who could start for any team in the league: Bryan Hall, Brian Bulcke and 2014 East Division Most Outstanding Canadian Ted Laurent. Hall emerged as a playmaker in 2014, and filled in admirably when Bulcke was lost for the season with a biceps injury in mid-September. Bulcke himself was playing at the same high level he was during his first season with the Ticats in 2013 before being hurt. With the Stanford grad back at full health, the sky is the limit in 2015.

But it is Laurent, a free-agent signee acquired a year ago today, who is the star of the group. That is not meant to take away from the other two players, but last year Big Teddy was a tour de force for the Ticats. He finished with a career-high nine sacks, while being named both an East Division and CFL all-star. Laurent was a disruptive presence the entire season and the future looks bright for the former Ole Miss Rebel.

On the outside, Hamilton returns two all-stars in Eric Norwood and Justin Hickman. Norwood took the league by storm in the second half of last season. After being benched for a few game earlier in the year, Norwood came on in a big way after Labour Day. Norwood finished tied for second in the league with 13 sacks, 11 of them coming after the mid-season mark, including a three-sack game against the Argos in October and an incredible four sacks against the Edmonton Eskimos in September. It truly seemed like everything clicked for the second-year man out of South Carolina during the latter half of the 2014 campaign.

Norwood’s emergence seemed to coincide with Hickman’s return. The big man from UCLA found his way back to Steeltown after two years with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. While he did not dominate like during his last tour of the CFL in 2011, when he tied for the league lead in sacks, Hickman was still a valuable player and one the team deemed necessary to retain when they inked him to a new deal in February. Hickman will want to prove to everyone that he is still an elite-level defensive end and with that chip on his shoulder, opposing quarterbacks had better watch out.

The Ticats also possess an incredible amount of depth along the defensive line, and have an overabundance of Canadian talent. Michael Atkinson, Hasan Hazime, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Mathieu Girard and Stephen Mawa are all young players who will likely spend most of their time on the field on special teams, though they could also see some duty on defense. Gascon-Nadon, especially, is a special team’s ace, and he could become an even larger force on special teams following the recent retirement of Marc Beswick. The team also has 2014 first-round pick Evan Gill waiting in the wings, though it is unsure when he will contribute as the former Manitoba Bison is still healing from a knee injury suffered last year.

Inside is not the only place the Ticats have depth along the line. Two players to watch out for at end are Antonio Coleman and Sam Scott. Coleman had some strong showings in 2014, but his season was cut short by injury. The Mobile, Alabama native has all the tools to become a big-time playmaker, and if he makes the same second-year leap that Norwood did, the Auburn alum could post some surprising numbers. Scott enters his third season with the Ticats and has shown flashes of being a dominate player, but has not put it together over a full season. Both players will probably not see the field much, but they could provide rotational depth and help keep Hamilton’s two all-star defensive ends healthy and rested, while putting up some solid numbers themselves.

It is hard not to excited about what the Ticats have along the defensive line. Whether it be quality Canadians up the middle or the surplus of talented International ends, Hamilton has a defensive line that will cause nightmares for their opponents. If it all comes together, the Ticats will have the best defensive line in the entire CFL.

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.