There was a time, and not so long ago, when the ball just wouldn’t stick in Courtney Stephen’s hands.
The field corner from Brampton did not make an interception in his first 23 games as a Hamilton Tiger-Cat, his inaugural pick finally arriving in late September last season. Naturally aggressive on the field, he created enough chances but they were generally resulting in effective, but frustrating, caroms and knock-downs.
By stark contrast, in his last 23 games, the Ticats’ 2012 second-round draft choice out of Northern Illinois has seven interceptions.
That includes thefts in back-to-back games against Saskatchewan and Montreal, which gives him four for the season, just two back of CFL leader Johnny Adams of Winnipeg and one behind defensive halfback Emanuel Davis, who plays right beside him on the wide side of the field.
They comfortably wear the moniker “ball hawks,” a term held in warm regard around the Cats since Orlondo Steinauer arrived as defensive co-ordinator three years ago, simultaneous to Stephen’s first season in Hamilton.
Steinauer wants his defensive backs to use creative intelligence, and not be afraid to jump pass routes when it’s prudent to do so in order to cinch the big, momentum-altering, play.
Stephen and Davis are Exhibits A and B on how Steinauer’s theory goes down when it’s understood and executed.
“He’s a great leader because he’s played the game,” says Stephen, who turns only 26 next Tuesday. “He’s been an all-star at three different positions, been to the Grey Cup as a player and coach. If you’ve got a person like that in the room and you’ve got half a brain you perk up and listen.
“He wants us to makeourplays, so when the ball presents itself you go for it. I think I’ve always been aggressive, but … I’m more experienced now, let’s just say that.”
Head coach Kent Austin was saying after the Ticats’ pre-B. C. practice Tuesday that Stephen has “definitely got better as a football player. You need experience under your belt, and being out there with a consistent lineup.”
The Cats have used a lot of different bodies in the secondary (and everywhere else) this year, but all have experience with Steinauer’s read-and-react-this-isn’t-memory-work defensive schemes. Judgment is a critical factor in those schemes, and Stephen has it.
What he also has now, says Steinauer, is consistent health. He’s missed a couple of games this year, couldn’t suit up for last November’s Grey Cup and was hurt quite a bit in college.
He oscillated between corner and his natural position of safety during his rookie season but he’s a bona fide ratio-breaker at corner because as Steineauer says “he’s a starter in this league” regardless of nationality. Plus he plays safety if Craig Butler is injured or moving up to linebacker.
“The game slows down for people at different points,” Steinauer says of Stephen’s ascendancy, “and the game has slowed down for Courtney.”
“I’d hope so,” Stephens shrugs. “I’ve played in enough games now that I don’t want there to be too much that would surprise me. The expectation I have of myself is that I don’t want to a person you have to tell the same thing twice. I like to learn from experience and others.”
Learning from some vets, one thing he’s added to his repertoire this year is taking a cold tub before practice even if he doesn’t feel like one, “because it resets my body.”
Stephen carpools to work with veteran defensive back Brandon Stewart and learns daily from him, plus he and Davis spend a lot of time together off-field, which enhances their communication.
“I like playing next to Emanuel,” he says. “He’s a great player, and it gives you confidence. As a defensive back you can’t play scared.”
And the balls that now stay in the mitts rather than glance off them?
“Those are growing pains, right?” he laughs. “Unfortunately, I had a little bit of a learning curve to work through. But I feel that if you start out on top, where you gonna go but down?”
NOTES: Michael Ford, the main cog in the Cats’ increased commitment to the run, was hurt against Montreal and won’t play Friday in B.C. but it appears that CJ Gable, injured since Aug. 3, will return to the backfield for Friday’s game at BC Place Stadium. “Unless there’s a setback today, he looks like he’s ready to play,” said Kent Austin. “I’m not anticipating any issues but you never know.” … Simoni Lawrence, who left Sunday’s game after getting hit in the head, practised and is ready to go “unless there’s a setback” Austin says … Jeff Mathews could enunciate better yesterday but still has an ugly looking cut on his tongue which filled his mouth with blood during the game. He says his teammates had trouble understanding his signals … Austin praised the versatility of running back Anthony Woodson, who filled in after Ford was hurt … because it’s a short week, receiver Terrence Toliver and tackle Joel Figuero won’t return to the lineup for B.C.