The Hamilton Tiger-Cats open the season Friday against the Calgary Stampeders in a rematch of last season’s Grey Cup. Here’s a look at the 2015 Ticats team that will try and bring home the franchise’s first championship since 1999.
Zach Collaros begins his second season as the starter in Hamilton and looks far more comfortable in the offence designed by head coach Kent Austin and offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell. Collaros saw limited action in the pre-season but was sharp (14 for 17, 183 yards, four scoring drives) in his 25 minutes last week against the Bombers. He’s also assumed more of leadership role in the locker-room this season.
Behind him, rookie Jeff Mathews — who played in Austin’s system for three years at Cornell University — won the backup job on the strength of a strong camp and pre-season performance against Ottawa (9 for 15, 188 yards, two touchdowns). Jacory Harris starts the year as the No. 3 with Jeremiah Masoli, who came to camp with a shot at the backup job, currently at No. 4 on the depth chart.
As long as Collaros stays healthy, the Ticats have one of the best young quarterbacks in the league and one who could be poised for a season that moves him into the CFL’s elite. But should he go down — he missed five games last season with a concussion — the team will be relying on untested backups to lead a team with championship aspirations.
With injuries taking out the Ticats top three runners — C.J. Gable (hand), Mossis Madu (shoulder), Nic Grigsby (lower body) — the team will turn to a pair of rookies to open the season. Ray Holley will get the start against Calgary and has shown the versatility Austin likes in his backs, while Michael Ford will be the backup and play some special teams. Unless Holley lights it up, expect Gable to return to the starting job when healthy.
Canadian Anthony Woodson was signed in the off-season to provide some Canadian depth but will start the season on the injured list. At fullback, the team will rely on the steady, seemingly indestructible C.O. Prime, and will go into the season without a backup for him.
With the departure of Canadian Sam Giguere and a subsequent change in ratio, the Ticats will start two rookie American receivers in Tiquan Underwood and Terrence Toliver. Both had strong camps — though Toliver missed a week after taking a shot in the pre-season game against Ottawa — and will be expected to make an impact immediately. Watch for the versatile Tim Smith should injuries strike.
Among the returnees, Luke Tasker, the team’s leading receiver from a year ago, starts the season on the injured list but is expected to return within a couple of weeks. Bakari Grant has looked phenomenal in training camp and looks to be poised for a monster year, while Brandon Banks will play about 50 per cent of the offensive snaps in addition to his return duties.
Andy Fantuz is the lone Canadian starter and needs to stay healthy for both the Ticats’ sake — he’s missed 12 games the last two seasons — and his own: Fantuz is the final year of his contract and needs to demonstrate he’s still an elite-level receiver. Backup Matt Coates has progressed significantly but can’t be counted on to match Fantuz’s production should he get hurt again.
After rejigging their offensive line constantly through much of last season — and playing three Americans — the Ticats are looking for some consistency from this newly-constructed group. Centre Mike Filer enters his second season as a starter and should be better, while left guard Peter Dyakowski is back to 100 per cent after suffering a torn patella in the 2013 Grey Cup. He’s had a strong camp. Left tackle Jake Olson has been solid since showing up halfway through last season.
On the right side, the Ticats traded away the eighth overall pick in the 2015 CFL draft to get themselves a proven starter in former Alouette Ryan Bomben, and he hasn’t disappointed. Joel Figueroa looked to have the inside track on the starting right tackle job but is injured again and so veteran Brian Simmons — the team’s left guard last season — will begin the season in that role.
While the Ticats do have veteran Tim O’Neill in reserve and some kids in development — Mathieu Girard had a good camp — an injury to their Canadian starters could make life difficult for a unit that has given up the most sacks in each of the last two seasons.
This is another unit that has been ravaged by injury. After losing sophomore defensive tackle Linden Gaydosh to a off-season Achilles injury (he’s done for the year), veteran Brian Bulcke went down with a torn ACL early in training camp is also lost for the entirety of 2015. Then last Sunday, all-star defensive end Eric Norwood suffered a household injury which has left him sidelined for an as-yet-to-be-determined period of time.
Still, this should be a strong group. Defensive end Justin Hickman showed up to camp with his CFL body and the defensive tackle pairing of Ted Laurent (the East Division’s most outstanding Canadian last season) and Bryan Hall should wreak havoc on the inside. Look for rookie end Adrian Tracy, who had four sacks in the pre-season, to have an impact as soon as week two in Winnipeg.
All three starters are back from last season, with all-star Simoni Lawrence on the weak side, Taylor Reed in the middle and jack-of-all-trades Erik Harris at the SAM. Lawrence is an emerging star (he had 78 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions last season), while Reed should improve in his sophomore campaign. Harris lost some weight in the off-season to improve his speed and cover skills.
The backups are solid, too. Americans David Caldwell and Dan Molls played well in the pre-season and can help on special teams. Canadian Frederic Plesius is a likely starter on other CFL teams and will see playing time in certain defensive packages.
The secondary remains the one big question mark as co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer has been forced to deal with the loss of all-star corner Delvin Breaux to the NFL and an injury to starting halfback Rico Murray. Two Canadians — safety Craig Butler and corner Courtney Stephen — are in their usual spots, but the rest of the unit features some familiar faces in different roles and one newcomer.
That would be Johnny Sears, who will start the season at the boundary halfback spot after signing as a free agent from Winnipeg. A five-year veteran, Sears knows the CFL game but has trouble staying healthy and missed time during training camp.
To replace Breaux, the Ticats have tapped Ed Gainey, who filled in admirably when Breaux missed time last season due to injury. Like Breaux, Gainey combines physical play with decent cover skills but hasn’t been tested against the league’s elite — something he’ll face every week at the short corner spot.
Third-year man Emanuel Davis will start at the field half and the team will also utilize veteran Brandon Stewart, a versatile player who can play all over the secondary and help on special teams.
Still, this group will have to show they are up to the challenge in a year when the CFL has made it even tougher on defensive backs by changing the rules regarding pass interference.
Justin Medlock was the only kicker in camp and rewarded Austin’s show of faith by nailing all his field goals and 32-yard extra points in the pre-season. Primary return man Banks didn’t see much action in the exhibition games but will be expected to post big numbers — especially with the new rules around punt coverages. The team also has speedsters Terrell Sinkfield and Quincy McDuffie (who’s injured at the moment) to help share the load.
There are some question marks, however. Medlock’s primary holder (Tasker) is hurt and so Coates will handle the job for now. The retirement of veteran special teams ace Marc Beswick puts more pressure on Canadian youngsters like Plesius, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and newcomers Byron Archambault and Jonathan Langa in kick and punt coverage.
Now in his third season, general manager and head coach Kent Austin has fully implemented his cultural philosophy: a plurality of leadership with no doubt who’s ultimately in charge. The coaching staff, the core of which has remained intact during Austin’s tenure, is uncommonly close. There are few, if any, question marks here.