While the season-ending injury to Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Zach Collaros has garnered plenty of attention, the team also has another significant hole to fill — one that runs about six-foot-eight, 305 pounds.
Left tackle Jake Olson, one of the team’s most reliable contributors, playing a key position protecting the quarterback’s blind side, is done for the season after tearing the patella in his knee. Olson, now in his second season with the Ticats, had started all 12 games before getting hurt.
“Jake was really doing well and we feel horrible for him,” said head coach Kent Austin. “He’s a good person and a great teammate, and he was having an outstanding year.”
The Ticats have a few options to replace him — some old, some new and none of them exactly perfect.
The most likely scenario, for this week anyway, will see veteran Joel Figueroa step in for Olson. At 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, Figueroa is extremely athletic for a man his size but he’s had a hard time staying healthy, having missed 19 regular season games over the last three seasons (including seven this year.)
Mid-game adjustments along the offensive line can be challenging — especially when an American goes down early, as Olson did. His injury necessitated two other changes to fill the hole (right tackle Jeremy Lewis moving to left, Canadian Landon Rice taking over for Lewis), ruining any semblance of continuity. Figueroa, talented as he is, needs to show he can stay on the field at a time when his team desperately needs him to.
Both Figueroa and Lewis are more comfortable on the right side than the left, and Lewis ultimately moved back to his normal spot against Edmonton, with Rice filling in for Olson. The team had an extra left tackle in veteran Brian Simmons but shipped him to Edmonton on Sept. 3 in exchange for a conditional 7th round pick in the 2017 draft.
That’s an easy move to question with the benefit of hindsight, but Simmons commanded a decent paycheque, having signed a contract extension in 2013, and the Ticats are trying to free up cash to take a run at Canadian linebacker Henoc Muamba. Still, there’s little question he’d come in handy now.
Instead, the Ticats have brought in Simmons’ good friend and former Hamilton teammate Marc Dile, who started 28 games over the previous three seasons with the club. Dile has switched from his old No. 63 to No. 59 — Simmons’ old number — to pay tribute to his friend.
“That’s my big bro. When I came here, he took me under his wing and taught me so much about the game and about life,” Dile said. “I know what kind of person he is and I wanted to honour him with this.”
Like Figueroa, Dile has the physical tools and the nasty disposition that make for an excellent offensive line play but can’t stay healthy. He signed as a free agent with the Bombers in February — and was touted as a likely starter — but got hurt in training camp and was cut in June.
He spent the last few months in his home town of Tampa, Fla., hanging out with his five-year-old son — who started football this summer — and working 12-hour shifts at a Coca-Cola plant. But he knows the Austin system and so should be able to get up to speed quickly should he need to (although he, too, played mostly right tackle in his time with the Ticats.)
But tackle isn’t the only problem spot for the Ticats: guard could be an issue, too. Ryan Bomben still isn’t practising fully after hurting his ankle Aug. 27 against Montreal, and Peter Dyakowski does not appear to be 100 per cent after toughing it out through a series of lower body injuries against Edmonton. Veteran Tim O’Neill and Rice are the fill-ins, but depth — particularly among Canadians — is fast becoming an issue.
With Collaros and his lightning-quick decision-making skills now permanently absent, offensive line play is about to become even more critical. Rookie Jeff Mathews will undoubtedly take longer to move through his progressions, and he doesn’t share Collaros’ natural escapability: Mathews’ best — maybe only — chance for success is if he can stand in a clean pocket, take his time and make good decisions.
That’s a big ‘if’ — and it’s up to the big boys up front to provide it.