The Hamilton Tiger-Cats D begins with Coach O.
Defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer has presided over the defensive group for all three seasons under head coach Kent Austin, taking a unit that was dead last in most meaningful statistical categories the year before he took over to one which has steadily progressed: they were third in points allowed and first in takeaways last season.
But after bringing back 11 of 12 starters in 2015, the Ticats’ defence will get a major overhaul this season. Three quarters of the defensive line, two of three starting linebackers and much of the secondary will need to be reworked or replaced after a slew of free agent departures and the injury to all-star safety Craig Butler.
In part two of our training camp preview, let’s take a look at the defence.
Three former Ticat linemen are now in Toronto – defensive end Justin Hickman and tackles Bryan Hall and Brian Bulcke – while a fourth, former all-star end Eric Norwood, will finish his knee rehab in Saskatchewan after being released by Hamilton.
The most important piece of that unit, however, is the one that didn’t get away. Defensive tackle and 2014 East Division Most Outstanding Canadian Ted Laurent re-signed with the club after dabbling in free agency and should continue to wreak havoc on the inside.
The Ticats also have a ready-made replacement for Hall in sophomore Drake Nevis, who was with the team all of last season without seeing the field but has a tantalizing combination of strength and quickness. He’ll be pushed by former Blue Bomber Zach Anderson and newcomer Delano Johnson.
But with Butler’s knee injury expected to keep him out for all of 2016, the Ticats will have to make some ratio decisions and one of the strong possibilities would see the team use two Canadian defensive tackles. Linden Gaydosh is fully recovered from a torn Achilles while Mike Atkinson and Evan Gill provide depth.
At end, Austin signed former Rider John Chick (pictured), with whom he won a Grey Cup in 2009. Now 33, Chick had 11 sacks last season but had just three in the final six games: assuming he’s still an elite-level pass rusher, Chick should help a unit that has finished at or near the bottom of the CFL in sacks the last three seasons.
On the other side, Adrian Tracy, Troy Davis, Antonio Coleman have all shown potential in limited playing time while newcomer Kevin Dixon will look to make an impact.
With Erik Harris gone to the New Orleans Saints and Taylor Reed now with the Stamps, the Ticats are in the market for both a middle and strong side linebacker.
Alex Hoffman-Ellis (pictured) was signed as a free agent from the B.C. Lions, one of those under-the-radar moves that could pay off big: Hoffman-Ellis filled in admirably for the injured Solomon Elimimian last season and, at 26 with two seasons of CFL experience, is just entering the prime of his CFL career: he could be the new man in the middle.
Anther ratio-breaking option would be Canadian Frederic Plesius, who – somewhat surprisingly – re-signed with the club instead of pursuing a starting job elsewhere. Hamilton has plenty of depth in Byron Archambault and Beau Landry as well as 2016 draft pick Terrell Davis.
At SAM, both Johnny Sears and Rico Murray have the experience and skillset to play one of the most difficult spots on the field but both have struggled to stay healthy. Both could also find a home in the revamped secondary.
On the weak side, Simoni Lawrence, the 2015 East Division Most Outstanding defensive player, is as close to a lock as there is on the roster: he just needs to stay healthy through camp.
After struggling to replace Delvin Breaux at boundary corner last season, the Ticats will enter 2016 with that question still largely unanswered – with a few others added on for good measure.
Butler’s injury means the Ticats must decide whether to continue playing two Canadians in the secondary: if they do, then Mike Daly must show he’s capable of starting at safety. If they don’t, then moving field corner Courtney Stephen to the safety spot, with Daly and a cast of others as back ups, makes some sense.
The rest of the back end is equally unsettled, though there are plenty of options. Murray and Sears, likely candidates for SAM linebacker spot, can also play halfback and Murray has seen some time at corner as well. All-star halfback Emanuel Davis (pictured) also re-signed after getting some NFL looks and will likely find a starting spot.
But with Ed Gainey and Brandon Stewart allowed to leave via free agency, the Ticats will need some new faces to step up. Free agent signing Demond Washington has 58 starts in four seasons with Winnipeg while Cleshawn Page and Ellis Lankster have limited CFL experience. There are currently 12 American defensive backs on the roster – Chase Minnifield and Tevrin Brandon are a couple of names to remember – and Coach O will need at least a few of them to prove they are CFL-worthy in a hurry.