While the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have faced their share of challenges over the last two seasons — injuries to key contributors, scheduling issues due to stadium construction and the Pan Am Games, among others — the kicking game has appeared largely worry-free.
That’s because Justin Medlock was virtually automatic from anywhere inside the stadium, connecting on 88.7 per cent of his field goal attempts in 2014 and 2015, including a remarkable 75.8 rate from beyond 40 yards — and he did it while playing at the wind tunnel that is Tim Hortons Field.
He is now the most accurate kicker in CFL history.
But while Medlock is excellent at splitting the uprights, the two other facets of his kicking game aren’t nearly as polished. His 40.3 gross average was dead last among 11 players with more than 30 punts last season, his kickoffs good enough for fifth. A couple of untimely shanks were significant factors in a couple of Ticat losses in 2015.
Here’s the other thing about Medlock: he doesn’t come cheap. The two-year deal he signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in February is worth in the neighbourhood of $175,000 a season and that wasn’t a significant raise from what the Ticats were paying him.
Medlock’s perceived shortcomings and his hefty price tag led the Ticats to let him walk and while that decision made some practical sense, it has left the team with a key question heading into training camp: Who, exactly, is going to replace him?
In Part 3 of our training camp preview, we examine special teams.
After Medlock signed with the Bombers, the Ticats made an unsuccessful run at former Toronto Argonaut Swayze Waters, who ultimately signed in the NFL, then worked out a number of kickers from both sides of the border. The team brought four to mini-camp in April and while they have yet to make it official, the Ticats are expected to bring in two American kickers to compete for the job.
Brett Maher played 22 games over two seasons with Ottawa, including all 18 games in their inaugural 2014 campaign where he kicked the game-winner in Week 3 to give the new franchise their first-ever CFL win. But a torn labrum in his kicking hip was discovered just before training camp last season, leaving him in need of surgery and six months of rehab. He returned to punt in four games for Ottawa in 2015.
For his career, Maher is 25 of 37 (67.6 per cent) on field goals, going just 3-for-10 on kicks from 40 yards and beyond. He has never connected from beyond the 50, going 0-for-2. Maher averaged 45.4 yards per punt in 2014, tied for second in the CFL, while his 38.0-yard net average was third. His 62.2-yard kickoff average was fifth.
His numbers at Nebraska: 83 per cent on field goals in 47 attempts, 8-for-11 between 40 and 49 yards, 6-for-11 on attempts of 50-plus yards with a long of 54. So the leg strength would appear to be there.
Competing against Maher is Cody Mandell, who has never played in the CFL. The 24-year-old was a punter for four seasons at Alabama — he was a member of two national championship teams — and had an impressive 47.1 yard average his senior year.
The big question will be Mandell’s place-kicking ability, something he hasn’t done since high school.
Assuming Maher or Mandell kick well enough to earn the starting job in training camp — and the Ticats will want one guy to do all three things — they’ll still have to prove they can do when the games really matter. And they have some pretty big (kicking) shoes to fill.
After posting seven kick return touchdowns in his first two-plus seasons — including four last year — Brandon Banks has cemented his status as one of the most electrifying players in the game today. His seven returns of more than 30 yards led the CFL last season when he was named the league’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player.
If there’s a concern about Banks, it’s his durability. He’s listed at 5-foot-7, 153 pounds, but it hasn’t been an issue yet, as he’s missed just four of a possible 41 regular season games during his career.
The loss of Terrell Sinkfield to the NFL robs the Ticats of another legitimate return threat — not to mention a 1,000-yard receiver — but the addition of Chad Owens (eight career TD returns) and Demond Washington from Winnipeg should help provide some depth. C.J. Gable is a solid kick returner, too.
Long snappers and holders
Both of the team’s primary snappers return this season with veteran Aaron Crawford and youngster Mathieu Girard in camp. Crawford handled punts with Girard taking field goal duties last year, though it’s possible the latter could fill both roles this season while also providing valuable insurance on the offensive line.
The team has a number of experienced holders including Luke Tasker — Medlock’s personal favourite — receiver Andy Fantuz and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Developing a good working relationship with the new kicker, whoever that may be, will be key.
The Ticats’ special teams have been very solid under co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold the last three seasons, allowing just one return touchdown over that span. But the departures of some key contributors, including Americans Erik Harris, Taylor Reed and Brandon Stewart and Canadians Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Neil King will put several units under pressure.
On the plus side, Ticats have excelled at finding big, athletic Canadians to help on teams. Frederic Plesius’ 19 special teams tackles was good enough for third in the CFL last season while Beau Landry was second on the club with 14. Byron Archambault, recovering from torn knee ligaments, Jay Langa and Mike Daly all know their way around the kicking game.
Alex Hoffman-Ellis, signed as a free agent from the B.C. Lions, should help and Reinebold will need to get the rest of the American newcomers up to speed as quickly as possible.