The Hamilton Tiger-Cats travel to Toronto on Saturday to face off against the Toronto Argonauts in CFL pre-season action and while the game doesn’t count in the standings, it has a unique meaning for each player and coach involved. Here’s what’s at stake for five Ticats.
1. Will Smith, the American rookie
The 24-year-old Smith is trying to make the team as a reserve linebacker and special teams player but will get the start in place of Simoni Lawrence (one of many veterans sitting this one out.)
Smith hasn’t played in a game since the summer of 2014 when he was with the Dallas Cowboys. He was released from the practice roster to make room for Michael Sam, the first openly gay pro football player who would eventually sign with Montreal Alouettes before washing out of football.
“We saw that they were bringing somebody in and we were talking about the fact that it was Michael Sam. Then I got the call,” Smith said. “He wants to play football so he plays football, the rest of it is just his personal business.”
Smith needs to make an impression on Saturday to stand out among a deep linebacking corps.
“I just have to fly around and collect bodies,” he said. “That’s about it.”
2. Stefan Ptaszek, new offensive coordinator
Hired just three weeks before training camp, Ptaszek doesn’t look like he’s slept since.
The former McMaster head coach is taking a crash coach in the Kent Austin offence while also trying to teach it to players. He’ll spend Saturday’s game in the booth, calling plays for part of the game and supporting Austin for the remainder.
“The word ‘exhibition’ doesn’t make it any less interesting for me,” Ptaszek said. “It’s better for the players because after the opening kickoff, the nerves calm down. For coaches, you don’t get smacked in the face.”
Game planning for the pre-season offers a unique set of challenges because there are multiple objectives.
“With players in their first CFL game, we want to give them things they have a feel for,” Ptaszek said. “Winning is certainly one of the goals but at the top of the list is getting the guys evaluated and putting them in position to demonstrate whether they can play at this level.”
3. Brian Simmons, the veteran with something to prove
Even with six CFL seasons under his belt, Simmons is still nervous about Saturday’s tilt.
The 31-year-old offensive tackle lost his starting job last season and was traded away to Edmonton in September before re-signing as a free agent in Hamilton five months later. He’s been taking first team reps at camp but needs to show that he’s regained the form that made him a 2014 East all-star.
“You never know what can happen in this league and last year showed me that. I know this is a pre-season game but for me, this a game,” Simmons said. “I have to show my coaches and my teammates – and I think about them, too – that I belong here.”
4. Mercer Timmis, draft pick
A star running back at the University of Calgary, the Ticats second round draft pick will need to excel on special teams if he’s going to make an impact in 2016.
He’ll play on all four kick units on Saturday, something he hasn’t done since his first season with the Dinos.
“I knew coming into the league that I’d have to make it on special teams,” Timmis said. “The talent level here, the speed, the level of detail, being around has been awesome.”
The Burlington native will have 10 to 15 friends and family at BMO Field – it’s a lot easier to get tickets in the pre-season – and hopes to see some time on offence in the later stages.
“I have a lot of to prove and tape speaks for itself so I just need to go out there and focus on the things I’ve learned so far,” he said.
5. Jeremiah Masoli, starting quarterback
It feels like Masoli has the inside track to start the season as the No. 1 guy while incumbent Zach Collaros recovers from a knee injury but he needs to continue building on his strong finish to last season and solid training camp.
He gets the start versus the Argos, though how much he plays remains an open question.
“It doesn’t really change anything for me. I feel great about it but I’d feel great about it either way – we get to play this Saturday,” Masoli said.
The game at BMO Field will be played on natural grass, which has become something of a talking point in the Ticat dressing room.
“There’s nothing like grass. There’s some give and it’s a different feeling when you get tackled,” Masoli said. “The smell, the feel… it’s all that. It’s more authentic.”