Ticats need to survive early season without Collaros

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will start the 2016 season without their top offensive weapon.

Quarterback Zach Collaros won’t play Thursday night when Hamilton opens the regular season visiting the arch-rival Toronto Argonauts. Collaros is still recovering from the knee injury that cut a promising ’15 campaign short.

Jeremiah Masoli, Hamilton’s playoff starter last season, faces Toronto after completing 15-of-24 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the Ticats’ two exhibition games.

“He’s earned it by the end of last year and his play during training camp and in the pre-season,” said Kent Austin, Hamilton’s head coach/vice-president of football operations. “Just his trustworthiness for us right now behind the centre and his understanding of what we’re asking that position to do.”

Collaros led Hamilton to an 8-3 start last year and was the top candidate for the CFL’s outstanding player award. He was leading the league in passing yards (3,376), touchdowns (25) and passer rating (113.7) with an impressive 70.2 completion percentage.

But Collaros tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a 25-18 loss in September to Edmonton. Collaros was scheduled to become a free agent this off-season, but on Monday he signed a contract extension with Hamilton through the 2018 campaign.

Masoli, Jeff Mathews and Jacory Harris all started in Collaros’s absence as Hamilton (10-8) finished second in the East. Masoli assumed the No. 1 job in the playoffs and led Ticats past Toronto 25-22 in the East semifinal – Masoli’s first career post-season start – then threw for 349 yards in a wild 35-28 loss to Ottawa in the division final.

Luke Tasker (76 catches, 1,066 yards, six TDs) will be a key figure in the receiving corps with the off-season departures of Terrell Sinkfield (NFL) and Bakari Grant (Calgary). Tiquan Underwood (34 catches, 557 yards, three TDs) should get more playing time while Hamilton will certainly look for more production from veteran slotback Andy Fantuz (42 catches, 432 yards, two TDs).

Another option will be veteran slotback Chad Owens. He had 445 catches for 5,164 yards and 20 TDs over six seasons with Toronto, helping the Argos win the 100th Grey Cup in 2012 en route to being named the CFL’s outstanding player.

Owens could also help ease kick-returner Brandon Banks’ workload as Owens was the league’s top special-teams player in 2011. But after missing just two games his first three years in Toronto, Owens was sidelined for 17 regular-season games the last three years.

Spencer Watt, another former Toronto receiver, returns after missing all of last season with an Achilles injury.

A healthy C.J Gable gives Hamilton’s offence more balance. The former USC star rushed for 782 yards (six-yard average) and seven TDs while adding 54 catches for 598 yards and five touchdowns in 2013 but has battled injuries the last two seasons.

Simoni Lawrence anchors Hamilton’s defence. The colourful linebacker was the East’s top defensive player last year after career highs in tackles (80) and sacks (five) while adding two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.

A key figure, though, is all-star tackle Ted Laurent, the highly coveted Montreal native who re-signed with Hamilton after becoming a free agent. Laurent, 28, had 26 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble last season but often handles double-teams that gives other defensive linemen one-on-one situations while keeping linebackers like Lawrence free to follow to the ball.

However the 28-year-old has an undisclosed injury and it’s unclear if he’ll play Thursday.

Hamilton’s defensive line was also bolstered by the arrival of John Chick. The six-foot-four, 250-pound defensive end, the CFL’s top defensive player in 2009, had 190 tackles, 53 sacks, nine forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries over six seasons with Saskatchewan before being released in the off-season.

Canadian tackle Linden Gaydosh, taken first overall in the 2013 CFL draft, returns after missing last year with an Achilles injury.

Hamilton has questions in the secondary as London, Ont., native Craig Butler (knee) is expected to miss the season. Cornerback Courtney Stephen, of Brampton, Ont., has played safety and can make the switch.

Hamilton also signed veteran defensive backs Geoff Tisdale, a former Ticat who last played for Saskatchewan in 2015, and Dominique Ellis, a 2013 CFL all-star with Montreal.

Former Ottawa kicker Brett Maher has big shoes to fill with the off-season departure of Justin Medlock (Winnipeg). Medlock hit 42-of-47 field goals (89.4 per cent) while sporting a 40.3 punting average and 62 yards on kickoffs last year.

– CP