Ticats Game Preview: Five Things to Watch

Football is back… finally!

After six months of anticipation, the Ticats return to the field for the time since their heartbreaking loss in the 102nd Grey Cup. Sure, it is only a preseason game, but it is still football and any football is better than no football.

Both the Ticats and their opponents, the Ottawa RedBlacks, are in the unenviable position of kicking off the preseason a little over a week after training camps opened across the league. Neither team will have had much practice time to evaluate their players prior to tonight’s game and newcomers to each club are being thrown into the thick of things much earlier than their counterparts around the league. This trial by fire can have both negative and positive consequences, and how the players handle that will go a long way into deciding their futures.

Many of the star players on both teams will be sitting out tonight’s contest so coaches can get a better look at players fighting for jobs. For Hamilton, Zach Collaros, Andy Fantuz, Brandon Banks, Ted Laurent, Simoni Lawrence, Taylor Reed and Erik Harris will all stay in civvies for this one. Three big-name acquisitions for the RedBlacks — receivers Maurice Price, Ernest Jackson and Chris Williams — did not make the trip to Hamilton, which means Tiger-Cats fans will have to wait until the November 1 Ottawa-Hamilton game to mercilessly boo No. 80 this year.

Preseason games can still produce some fascinating subplots despite the fact that the final score does not really matter, so let’s take a look at five things worth watching in tonight’s preseason opener.

1. Quarterback Competition

As previously mentioned, Zach Collaros will not suit up for the game tonight, but there is still plenty of intrigue at the game’s premier position for the Tiger-Cats. Three players — Jeff Mathews, Jacory Harris and Jeremiah Masoli — are in a fierce competition to see who will be the backup to Collaros when the season opens. Mathews, the newcomer from Cornell, will start tonight’s game, with Harris is listed at No. 2 on the depth chart and Masoli jotted down as the team’s third pivot. It will be interesting to see how long each quarterback plays and who stands out. A good game by any of them could put them in the driver’s seat for the No. 2 spot.

2. Battle at Receiver

A couple of CFL rookies, who have performed extremely well during the first week of Ticats training camp, will make their debuts tonight. Both Tiquan Underwood and Terence Toliver have practiced with the first-team offense at times, and both will likely see plenty of time on the field in tonight’s matchup. The Ticats are likely to deploy four International receivers this year, and both Toliver and Underwood are the frontrunners to be that fourth guy. While it will be hard to assess how they will do in the regular season due to the fact that Collaros will not play, the two could put even more distance between themselves and the other contenders with solid games tonight.

3. Short-Side Players

The one lingering question we seem to always come back to is who will play short-side corner. Ed Gainey is listed on the depth chart in Delvin Breaux’s old spot, but Emanuel Davis (not Emmanuel Lewis) is listed as the other starting corner with Courtney Stephen not dressing. Both players are in the mix to replace Breaux, so keep an eye out on how each player performs during tonight’s contest. A solid game from either of them could see them sprint to the front of the pack in the competition to fill Breaux’s former home at short-side corner.

4. Ottawa’s Revamped Receiver Corps

While Hamilton’s starting pivot might not be dressing, his Ottawa counterpart will be. Henry Burris will see some action in tonight’s game and he gets to test out some new toys, though one of them is more like an old toy in a new package. While he will be missing three of the bigger weapons the RedBlacks acquired this offseason, we will get to see if Burris can reestablish some chemistry with former Tiger-Cat teammate Greg Ellingson. The two played together in 2013 and Ellingson was well on his way to a rookie-of-the-year award before injuries derailed his season. Ellingson was allowed him to walk in free agency to reunite with Burris in Ottawa after injuries saw players surpass him on Hamilton’s depth chart last season. Ellingson caught 52 passes for 800 yards and six touchdowns with Burris throwing him the ball two seasons ago, and if the two can click like they did in the 2013 season, the receiving corps for the Rouge et Noir might be an even bigger threat than already thought.

5. New Rules

Tonight’s game will also be the first time we will see the new rules the CFL adopted this offseason put into practice. Without Brandon Banks or Chris Williams, we won’t see how the league’s premier return men deal with the changes to punt coverage, but we can still watch how the rule will affect the return men that will be handling those duties tonight. We will also get to to see what an extra point looks like from the 32-yard line and how defensive backs deal with not being allowed to contract receivers after five yards. With teams still adapting to the new rules, we could see a lot of cloth on the field tonight as players continue to learn what is and is not allowed.

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.