The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have been perennial contenders the last three seasons under vice-president of football operations and head coach Kent Austin, appearing in the East title game each year and making two Grey Cup appearances.
But not since Austin’s first season in 2013 have the Ticats entered training camp with so many question marks at key positions. While the team has a solid talent base and decent Canadian depth, injuries to key contributors and some notable free agent departures have Hamilton looking to fill plenty of holes during training camp.
Players will take to the field for the first time on Sunday and so for the next three days, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the 2016 Ticats. Up first: the offence.
Perhaps the biggest question mark facing the Ticats comes at the most important position: who will start at quarterback week one? With Zach Collaros still recovering from a knee injury suffered last September – and Austin has already confirmed Collaros won’t be ready to start the regular season, the No. 1 job will likely fall to either Jeremiah Masoli or Jeff Mathews.
Masoli finished the season as the starter, leading the Ticats to a East semi-final win over Toronto, then playing brilliantly in the subsequent loss to Ottawa. Masoli is a dual-threat guy who, until his 326-yard 30 for 42 passing day against the Redblacks, has struggled with decision-making and accuracy. He does, however, have that intangible leadership quality: his teammates believe in him.
Mathews spent much of last season as the No. 2, despite his rookie status, and initially took over after Collaros went down. He went 2-3 with six touchdown passes against eight interceptions as the starter, showing about what you’d expect from a talented first-year quarterback: flashes of brilliance interspersed with a ton of bad mistakes (turnovers, turnovers and more turnovers.)
Expect both guys to get time with the first-team offensive unit, likely on alternating days, with their performances in the pre-season games to be the determining factor in who gets the nod to start the season.
Further down the depth chart, Jacory Harris will need to have a very strong camp and pre-season to push his way past Masoli or Mathews (or both) and may face a challenge from newly-signed Jake Waters for the No. 3 spot. Waters was on a steep learning curve at last month’s mini-camp but the Ticats believe in his potential: at the moment, he and Masoli are the only quarterbacks signed through next season.
Meanwhile, the Zach Watch will begin almost as soon as camp opens. Given that the 27-year-old was a leading candidate for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award at the time of his injury, questions surrounding the timetable for his return will be constant – especially if the Ticats struggle to open the season.
Here’s a hard truth: if C.J. Gable was anyone else other than C.J. Gable, the Ticats likely would have cut him a long time ago.
Gable was sensational in rookie season, compiling 1,622 all-purpose yards and earning East Division Most Outstanding Rookie honours. But in the two seasons since, he’s started just 13 of a possible 36 regular season games due to injury – an absentee rate that usually leads straight to the unemployment line.
But Gable is unique in that he can do three things really well: run the ball, catch it out of the backfield and protect the passer. While other backs may be able to perform one or two of those duties at a high level, Gable is above-average in all three and that’s proved almost impossible to replace.
The Ticats did it by committee last season, rolling out Ray Holley, Nic Grigsby and Michael Ford in Gable’s absence. Only Ford returns (33 carries, 186 yards), joined by the untested Ronnie Wingo. Once again, this job feels like Gable’s to lose.
On the Canadian side, the Ticats have a capable back up in Anthony Woodson – he’s also a good special teams player – and drafted Burlington’s Mercer Timmis, who was a standout for the Calgary Dinos. If the Ticats find themselves in some fresh ratio hell, they could roll out a national feature back in a pinch.
At fullback, the team re-signed the seemingly indestructible C.O. Prime, who has missed maybe three practices – not games, practices – in two-plus seasons with the club. Good thing too: the team, at this point, has no back-up and nobody in development after releasing 2015 draft pick Preston Huggins.
While the departures of 1,000-yard man Terrell Sinkfield and veteran Bakari Grant aren’t good news, this is still a team with a slew of talented pass catchers. Luke Tasker led the team with 76 catches and 1,066 yards last season while Terrence Toliver (679 yards in 13 games) and Tiquan Underwood (557 yards) should be better in their second CFL season.
Brandon Banks is still, well, Brandon Banks: an electrifying weapon who will get limited time on offence while scaring the bejeezus out of special teams coordinators every week. Jasper “Junior” Collins had a good mini-camp while sophomore Kealoha Pilares may look to push for a starting job.
And, oh yeah, they signed some guy named Chad Owens, who be out to prove that a) he’s still got plenty in the tank at age 34 and b) that the Argonauts did him wrong by declining to offer him a contract. Still, Owens will have to earn a starting spot among a deep group.
Especially if the Ticats decide to start two Canadian receivers, one of their many ratio options. Veteran Andy Fantuz (42 catches, 492 yards in yet another injury-plagued season) and Spencer Watt, who is fully recovered from a torn Achilles suffered last off-season, would be the likely candidates, though Matt Coates has a way of earning the trust of both quarterbacks and coaches.
The re-signed Giovanni Aprile has to start making an impact at some point and the team also drafted three receivers in Mike Jones (3rd round), Felix Faubert-Lussier (5th) and Matt Uren (8th) so the team has some depth and talent to develop.
The Ticats will start three veteran Canadians in the middle – centre Mike Filer and guards Ryan Bomben and Peter Dyakowski – but after that, things are far from certain.
Last year’s left tackle Jake Olson re-signed but is still recovering from a torn patella while oft-injured right tackle Joel Figueroa is now with Edmonton. The team has veteran Brian Simmons (60 career games played) and Jeremy Lewis (15 starts last season) and they will likely begin camp with the first unit but expect a push from rookies Terrence Campbell and Sean Donnelly (among others.)
The concerns with this unit surround continuity and depth. Offensive line coach Allen Rudolph departed after three seasons and his replacement, Mike Markuson, has never coached in the CFL. Veteran Canadian Tim O’Neill was traded to B.C. and beyond fourth-year man Landon Rice, the back ups are either young, inexperienced or both.
Tomorrow: the defence.