Cornerbacks Chase Minnifield and Demond Washington may not be household names but losing them to injury is a significant blow to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The first-year Ticats went down a few days apart, Minnifield with a suspected torn Achilles in the exhibition loss to Toronto, then Washington hurt his knee on an innocent-looking play during Monday’s practice. Both are expected to be out long term.
And both were projected as starters. Minnifield — the son of nine-year NFL veteran Frank Minnifield — fought his way up the depth chart to earn the top spot at the crucial boundary spot, while Washington, a four-year vet signed from the Bombers in February, was pencilled in as field corner from Day 1 of camp while also serving as a kick returner.
Defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer now has the unenviable job of reassembling a secondary that was just starting to round into form after an off-season rebuild that saw veterans Ed Gainey and Brandon Stewart leave via free agency and Canadian Courtney Stephen moved from corner to safety.
“I’ll pause for a second to acknowledge that it’s a human being and someone I care about, but from the team standpoint, it has to be the next guy up,” Steinauer said. “Any time there’s an injury, it is a blow but I choose not to dwell on it because they’re not on the field.”
Steinauer does have a few veteran pieces to work with. All-star Emanuel Davis looks locked in at the field halfback spot while Johnny Sears and Rico Murray — both experienced players — have moved back and forth between the boundary half and SAM linebacker position.
But the corner spots are now up for grabs with newcomers Chris Davis, Trey Wolfe and Quinton Pointer all getting reps over the past couple of days.
“We’re excited that there’s a pre-season game left. If it had happened after the second one, it’s an even bigger blow,” Steinauer said. “We’re fortunate to have the opportunity to look at some players.”
The defensive backfield isn’t the only spot that suddenly finds itself in a state of flux: the quarterbacks are suddenly an issue as well. Jeff Mathews and Jacory Harris are both nursing injuries suffered on Saturday: Mathews did limited work on Tuesday while Harris was absent for a second straight day as the team awaits test results on his injured left (nonthrowing) shoulder.
Head coach Kent Austin said the team would consider bringing in another pivot depending on Harris’s prognosis and offered little by way of a timeline for the recovery of injured starter Zach Collaros, beyond saying that his rehab from a knee injury suffered last September was on track.
“You set timelines and then you don’t meet them or you exceed them and then you wonder why you set a timeline,” Austin said. “When he starts practising full, we need to really evaluate it then to see if there’s any soreness or swelling, things that would slow him down a little bit.”
The Ticats have been beset by a number of injuries to high-profile players during Austin’s tenure while at the same time investing in state-of-the-art facilities and well-regarded fitness consultants. They monitor biometrics during practice, give veteran players extra rest and have made alterations to their training staff. The turf at Mac is brand new.
“Things happen. It’s just the way it is. I can tell you we’re doing everything in our power to make sure we’re on top of it,” Austin said. “Some of it is beyond our control. A couple of things that happened out here, what happened in the game, those things are beyond our control.”
The Ticats made their first round of cuts Tuesday and it sounds like the release of running back Michael Ford was a tough decision for head coach Kent Austin.
“We went back and forth on it for a couple days and there still wasn’t a consensus so I ended up having to make the choice,” Austin said. “It’s tough across the board but when you have a relationship with them, it’s not easy.”
Ford played six games last season in his second stint with Hamilton, registering 186 yards rushing and another 86 receiving. But with veteran C.J. Gable having a good camp and rookies Ross Schuerman and Da’Rel Scott showing impressive versatility, Ford was the odd man out.
Also released were defensive tackle Zach Anderson, a free agent pick up after playing 40 games in three seasons with Winnipeg; defensive end Antonio Coleman who has been trying to battle back from a knee injury suffered last season; receiver Patrick Robertson and offensive lineman Brandon Washington.
There were more moves expected Tuesday evening as the team reduced its roster to the league-mandated 65 players plus injuries and non-counters (mostly 2016 draft picks.)
“It’s always hard — it’s the worst part of the job,” Austin said. “But it’s got to be done and we do the best we can to do it properly and to make sure the guys know we appreciate how hard they worked and that we’ll help them moving forward.”