Milton: Mathews now the man for Ticats

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This isn’t quite as simple as “next man up, ” because you’re talking THE Man.

Jeff Mathews had his first practice as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ No. 1 quarterback Sunday, Zach Collaros’ season for the ages having been truncated by his torn ACL. Collaros, the unanimous front-runner for the CFL’s most outstanding player at the time of his injury, will undergo surgery later this week.

Mathews, the second-year pro out of Cornell – yes, the same Cornell which also delivered Luke Tasker, offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell, and head coach Kent Austin to Hamilton – did not have an auspicious beginning with the reins in his hands, and Austin soon yanked them from him. He was picked three times, twice for touchdowns, a week ago Saturday ago when the Ticats not only lost to Edmonton, but lost Collaros.

Mathews was devastated by that relief effort, but he’s the starter now and says he’s turned the psychological page.

“You’re going to have some kind of emotion, ” he said of the Edmonton game. “But you get through that. We did everything we could with the Edmonton film, and hopefully we’ll do much better. It’s all about Calgary now.”

The Stampeders, arguably the best team in the league and with a defence not known for going lightly on neophytes, ride into Tim Hortons Field Friday night.

Hamilton had a very welcome bye week last week but Mathews never waved bye. Quite the opposite. He was at the Ticats’ east-end home most mornings passing to as many receivers as he could muster. And for 15 minutes after practice Sunday, on his own time and that of his teammates, he worked with running backs Ray Holley, Michael Ford and Anthony Woodson on the footwork, ball positioning and timing of hand-offs.

“You try to make up for lost reps any time you can get them out there, ” Mathews said.

Mathews’ first pro start will be abetted by the probable return of Bakari Grant who has been out for seven weeks.

Even though it was at another level and in another country, Mathews’ familiarity with a Condell-Austin offence should give him some leverage on a steep adjustment curve: moving from CFL backup to starter.

It would seem reasonable to assume the rest of the team would amp up to insulate and protect a new quarterback, reaching back themselves for something a little extra, but there is a limit – quite a low ceiling actually – to that process.

“I think some of that stuff just happens naturally, organically, with the guys, ” Austin says. “It’s not something we drive as a staff. We’re not going to change our approach to getting guys ready.”

And Tasker explained that, “You can’t play outside yourself. You don’t want to overextend yourself or do somebody else’s job. He’s going to do the job.”

Tasker predicted that Mathews is “going to come in hot.” He said one difference between him and Collaros is how hard Mathews throws the ball over the middle. As long as your hands and eyes are ready, he says, you’ll catch the ball before the defender can react to it.

Collaros wasn’t at practice but Mathews wants him around as much as possible.

“He’s so strong mentally and physically, ” Mathews said. “He’s been great with me, helping me with the process of Game Week: how are we going to prepare? He’s instrumental to this team on or off the field. Zach is the MOP of the year right now. It’s not just him playing well, it’s the respect that people have for him, including myself.”

And you can tell he’s been around Austin a lot by his existential approach to his lack of CFL exposure.

“I don’t know what it’d be like to have more experience, I don’t know what it’d be like to have less, ” he says. “It’s about where I am right now.”

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