Ticats Secondary More Than Just Who Is No Longer Here

stewart_brandon-640x360 Over 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 enters the season with a few questions still left to answer: the secondary.

The one topic that has basically overtaken all Tiger-Cat talk during the offseason is subject of Devlin Breaux’s replacement. It is a question that has been poured over quite a bit, and still lingers three weeks before the season is set to begin. But to discuss the Tiger-Cats secondary by just tackling the Breaux question does a disservice to the rest of the team’s last line of defense. There are plenty of quality players and the unit as a whole is much better than some would care to to admit.

The anchor of the secondary is safety Craig Butler. The former Saskatchewan Roughrider was Hamilton’s big free agent signing last offseason. Butler’s 2014 season may not have been as good as his 2013 one with the Riders, but he provided a steady influence while playing in 17 of the team’s 18 regular season games. With a year in defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer’s system under his belt, Butler should emerge as a playmaker in the secondary.

Former safety, and fellow Canadian, Courtney Stephen moved over to the wide-side corner position with the arrival of Butler and, after a slight adjustment period, really began to find his way at the position. The Brampton, Ontario native finished tied for second on the team with two interceptions and ended 2014 with a career-high 46 tackles. Expect Stephen to continue his upward trajectory and continue to develop into one of the league’s top wide-side corners.

The team’s ballhawk is without a doubt Rico Murray. Murray hauled in five interceptions last season, tied for third in the league and the most by a Hamilton player since Chris Thompson led the league with nine interceptions in 2008. Murray also set a career-high in tackles with 63. But it is the turnovers he creates — or more correctly that find him — that makes Murray such a valuable member of the team’s secondary.

One of the players in the mix to replace Breaux had an up-and-down 2014. Brandon Stewart, also a free agent signing last offseason, had spent almost his entire CFL career manning the spot held in Hamilton by Stephen. Upon signing with the Ticats, the former Blue Bomber switched position to play short-side halfback. This spot garners the most attention because the defender is lined up against the opposing team’s top receiver. It was a tough transition for Stewart, but the eight-year vet out of Eastern Arizona has a lot to offer the team and his versatility — he can pretty much fill in at any spot in the secondary — can not be understated.

The Ticats also boast some fairly decent depth in the back end. Both Ed Gainey and Emanuel Davis are in the mix to start, and both played well when given the chance over the last couple of seasons. The team has also brought in a number of newcomers — players like Nick Brassell, Bobby Felder, Antoine Lewis, Cleshawn Page and Julian Posey — who could all go from unknown to all-star like Breaux did. The team also inked former Blue Bomber starter Johnny Sears, Jr., a player who has experience playing both defensive back and linebacker. That is the type of versatility that Kent Austin craves and the hard-hitting fifth-year man out of Eastern Michigan will make plays somewhere for the Tiger-Cats in 2015.

The Ticats also boast some decent Canadian depth in the secondary. Butler is backed up by both Neil King, who started in the 101st Grey Cup, and Mike Daly. Both spend the majority of their time on special teams, but Daly is a guy worth keeping an eye on as a possible starting safety down the road.

The Breaux question still remains and finding his replacement is probably priority No. 1 for the Tiger-Cats during training camp and the preseason. But whomever takes the role once occupied by No. 27 will step into a collective that is better than their individual parts suggest. Hamilton’s secondary may not be the league’s best five-man unit, but they are more than capable of holding their own against the CFL’s best offenses.

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.