CFL training camp is a numbers game and for rookies trying to break into the league, they are definitely stacked against you.
There will be close to 90 players in Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp when it gets underway on Sunday and while each one will, theoretically, have the chance to make the final roster (46 players, 10 on the practice squad, plus injured) the harsh reality is that many of those spots are already filled – particularly on a veteran team like the Ticats.
And with just 10 practices and two pre-season games in an exceptionally short training camp, players with CFL experience have a decided advantage over the newcomers. For some newcomers, just figuring out the waggle, the extra man and the bigger field – never mind the weird money – takes a few days and by the time they’re up to speed, it may already be too late.
Still, there are some intriguing battles set to play out at several spots on the Ticats’ roster.
What we know: Zach Collaros is absolutely rock solid in his status as the No. 1 (whether he can stay healthy is another matter) and Jeremiah Masoli is the proven, experienced back up. Newcomer Matt Johnson might push sophomore Everett Golson – neither has seen CFL game action – but that seems unlikely.
At receiver, Luke Tasker and Terrence Toliver will be starters for sure. Along the line, American Xavier Fulton is expected to be the starting left tackle, Mike Filer will be at centre and veteran Ryan Bomben will be at guard. Second-year stud Brandon Revenberg is likely the successor to Pete Dyakoswki at left guard.
1. Right tackle. With veterans Jeremy Lewis (released) and Brian Simmons (traded) no longer with the club, the team needs a new American starter on the right side. Jake Olson, who missed all of last season with a torn patella suffered in 2015, is a strong candidate. Newcomers Malcolm Bunche, Jordan Swindle and Torian White are in the mix as well, with a starting job and a likely practice roster spot available
2. Canadian receiver. With Andy Fantuz out with a torn knee ligament until Labour Day (at the earliest), veteran Spencer Watt released and Matt Coates gone via free agency the Ticats are going to need a starter to emerge from a largely untested group. Veteran Giovanni Aprile would appear to have the inside track but sophomore Mike Jones could push him and 2017 draft pick Jacob Scarfone, also coming off knee surgery, will be one to watch.
3. Third and fourth American receiver. With Tasker and Toliver locked in, that leaves two starting spots available. Brian Tyms looked great at the end of last year and had a very strong mini-camp in April while veterans Kevin Elliott and Junior Collins will also be strong contenders. After that, it’s a bit of a free-for-all with close to a dozen candidates in contention. Jalen Saunders is a speedster with some return capabilities while Ed Williams and Devon Breaux had strong mini-camps. Veteran speedster Brandon Banks, having just restructured his contract, will likely play the same role as primary return man and occasional downfield threat.
4. Back up Canadian offensive linemen. The sudden retirement of Mathieu Girard ruined the possibility of going with four national starters and it’s also left the Ticats needing some of their younger players to step up quickly. Veteran Landon Rice re-signed and he’s a versatile piece but one of Everton Williams – who is likely in his make-or-break year – or draft picks Braden Schram and Brett Golding will need to develop along the same trajectory as Revenberg did a year ago.
5. Running back. Veteran C.J. Gable is back after playing in 15 games last season, his highest total since his rookie year in 2013. His combination of running, receiving and pass protection remains tough to match but at 29, his age, injury history and his mid-level contract are working against him. Second-year man Ross Scheuerman played in three games last season and showed plenty of promise before breaking his wrist while rookie Alex Green had a strong mini-camp.
What we know: Defensive end John Chick and Simoni Lawrence will anchor a unit under new coordinator Jeff Reinebold with Canadian defensive tackle Ted Laurent and national safety Courtney Stephen as other starting locks. All-star Emanuel Davis will play field half back and Abdul Kanneh, a free agent pick up from Ottawa, will likely hold down the boundary spot.
1. Kicker. After bringing seven candidates to mini-camp in April and holding another workout this week, the Ticats have narrowed the list to two or three candidates who will compete for the job during training camp. The final names have yet to be announced but all will have limited CFL experience (and possibly none at all.) That’s a risk and will be regardless who ultimately wins the competition. Brett Maher, who held the job last year, remains a free agent and could return at some point – especially if the current crop struggles.
2. SAM linebacker. This was an area of concern last season and two veterans with experience at the position – Johnny Sears and Rico Murray – signed with Toronto as free agents. Because of its uniqueness to the Canadian game, the strong-side spot usually demands a veteran presence and the Ticats do have some in-house possibilities in Demond Washington, who is coming off a knee injury suffered in camp last year, and Dominique Ellis who has put some work in this off-season if his social media accounts are to be believed. Barring that, the team will need to find a big body who can run – and learn the nuances of the CFL game in a hurry.
3. Cornerback(s). Speaking of trouble spots, the secondary was a train wreck for much of 2016 particularly on the edges as the team cycled through a number of line ups: Cleshawn Page, who lined up at the boundary corner in the East Semi-Final loss to Edmonton, was making his first start of the year. The team has brought a cast of thousands in to audition though Khalid Wooten, acquired in a trade from Montreal, and NFL veteran Justin Rogers are two early candidates to keep an eye on.
4. The seventh Canadian starter. Hamilton has a few of options on offence (running back, a second receiver, four offensive linemen) but the seventh national starter is likely to come from this side of the football: the question is where? Two Canadian defensive tackles are certainly a possibility, with Mike Atkinson the likely partner for perennial all-star Ted Laurent and a bevy of youngsters and draft picks to back them up. Linebacker is also an option with sophomore Terrell Davis or McMaster product Nick Shortill as possibilities – though taking international Larry Dean off the field is unappealing. Defensive end poses the same issue with Justin Capicciotti as a viable option but at the expense of Adrian Tracy. The team played with two Canadians in the secondary in 2015 but the effectiveness of Craig Butler is largely unknown as he comes off knee surgery and there’s no viable back up to Stephen should they move him from safety to the corner. This roster domino will have a huge impact on how the final team is constructed.
5. American defensive tackle. If the team ultimately decides to stick with one Canadian on the line, they’ll need an international to replace the departed Drake Nevis, who signed with Winnipeg. Claudell Louis and Davon Coleman emerged from mini-camp and look for the team to add a couple of other big bodies before camp opens on Sunday – if they don’t, it would be another strong indicator that they’ve decided to go Canadian here.
Camp gets underway on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. at Ron Joyce Stadium at McMaster University and all sessions are open to the public.