Courtney Stephen rallies from tough outing

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Ticat defensive backs Emanuel Davis and Courtney Stephen have become close friends over the past three seasons, based in part on a willingness to be brutally frank with each other about their on-field performances. So when Stephen struggled in the regular season finale against the Redblacks – he gave up a couple of touchdowns in a 44-28 loss – Davis didn’t mince words.

“I told him he was going to have to respond from his game against Ottawa and I think he did,” Davis said. “We listen to each other and know that we have each other’s best interests in mind. It’s a trust issue.”

Stephen rebounded with a strong performance in the East Semi-Final win over the Argonauts. He was credited with a team-leading six tackles – usually a bad sign for a defensive back – but did an excellent job wrapping up Toronto receivers before they were able to rack up significant yards after the catch.

“I felt that he didn’t make the plays that came his way [against Ottawa],” defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer said. “On Sunday, he made the plays.”

While much the boundary side of the Hamilton secondary has been a work-in-progress for much of the season – the departure of Delvin Breaux to the NFL and injuries have wreaked havoc with the roster – things on the field side have been remarkably consistent. Davis has played in all 19 games this season while Stephen has appeared in 17 and hasn’t missed a start since mid-July.

That familiarity has helped both players enjoy career years. Davis was named an East Division all-star while registering 61 tackles and a team-high five interceptions while Stephen posted 48 tackles and four picks. Both players are scheduled to become free agents next February.

“We watch film at my house every week,” Davis said. “We talk a lot our personal life, our football life and our growth on and off the field.”

Stephen was a second round draft pick in 2012 and arrived in Hamilton the following season. He started 13 games at safety his rookie year before moving to the field corner in 2014 after the team signed all-star Craig Butler as a free agent.

Steinauer says Stephen’s willingness to shift positions has given the defence multiple options and a true ratio-breaker.

“I think he has a thankless job. He could be one of the best free safeties in this league and he’s also talented enough to play field corner,” said Steinauer. “We have the flexibility and freedom to move him around and I’m definitely pleased with where he’s at right now.”

Playing field corner is akin to living on an island. Offensive coordinators are often reluctant to ask their quarterbacks to make the long throw to the wide side – it’s ripe for interceptions – but when it happens, Stephen is often left to his own devices: either he makes the play, or gives up a big one.

“A lot of people sleep on that field corner spot but I feel it’s more on the hot seat than anybody else,” Davis said. “It might only get one or two plays the whole game but they can have a significant impact.”

Steinauer says 40-year-old Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris still has the strongest arm in the CFL and will likely look to test Stephen again when the two teams meet in the East Final on Sunday. That’s fine with the 26-year-old Brampton native.

“That’s the part that you have to embrace – you can’t play scared,” Stephen said. “This is the moment that you dream of: We have an opportunity to punch our ticket to the Grey Cup.”

Notes: The Ticats closed practice on Wednesday but head coach Kent Austin said that linebacker Simoni Lawrence and receiver Terrell Sinkfield both took “maintenance days” but are still likely to play Sunday. Defensive end Eric Norwood, however, has a suspected ligament tear in his knee and is likely done for the season. “That’s was a big blow, can’t sugar-coat that, losing Eric is tough,” Steinauer said. “They’re going to blow the whistle anyway so we’ll move on.”

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