Zach Collaros back in leadership role as Ticats open camp

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have a number of questions heading into the 2017 season, but the big one that loomed over them last year — when is Zach Collaros coming back? — has already been answered.

He’s here, perfectly healthy and ready to go.

Collaros returned last August from torn knee ligaments suffered during the 2015 season, but his presence in the early stages of the season was decidedly muted — particularly during training camp. While he remained the team’s No. 1 quarterback in theory, he could not fill in the role in practice.

“Last year I was just walking around, I couldn’t do anything … that was terrible,” Collaros said after Sunday’s first session at Ron Joyce Stadium at McMaster. “It’s a lot more fun this year.”

With Jeremiah Masoli slated to begin last season as the starter, Collaros was conscious of allowing him to fill the role both on the field and off.

But now, fully healed and with the benefit of a normal off-season and full training camp, Collaros will provide leadership from day one.

“For new guys coming in, it’s better when I’m out there being vocal, instead of just hanging back,” he said. “Quarterback is a leader by proxy, but being out there and having the face-to-face interactions, you can’t really replace that.”

Collaros led the first-string offence that featured a mix of old and new faces. American receivers Terrence Toliver and Luke Tasker were joined by Brian Tyms, Kevin Elliott and second-year Canadian Mike Jones. Along the offensive line, the battle spot is expected to be right tackle where internationals Jordan Swindle and Malcolm Bunche split reps.

There were some interesting developments on the starting defence as well.

Canadians Ted Laurent and Mike Atkinson held down the defensive tackle spots, the first small clue on how the team might address the ratio. In the defensive backfield, Dominique Ellis lined up at the strong-side linebacker spot — another question mark — while Emanuel Davis, an all-star at the field half the last two seasons, shifted over one spot to corner.

Still, Austin cautioned not to read too much into day one of a three-week training camp.

“We tell the players: ‘Don’t worry about the depth chart, position and the number of reps,’ that’s a real mistake,” Austin said. “We have a method to our evaluation and how we move guys around from day-to-day. We don’t want the same guy running the same play, for example. We’ll make sure we’re putting guys in a position to get an evaluation and to see how quickly they are learning.”

Another key storyline will also be the kicking game.

After a series of workouts last week, the Ticats settled on three players and announced their signings on Sunday morning: Sergio Castillo, Ryan Hawkins and Craig Peterson. Castillo and Peterson were at mini-camp. Hawkins played four years at Northern Arizona University, making 24 of his 29 field-goal attempts (82.8 per cent) and punting 73 times for an average of 47.7 yards. The successful candidate has to be able to do all three jobs.

“We’re down to three and the competition is ongoing, separate from what we’re doing out here,” Austin said. “Right now, I would say there hasn’t been a separation at this point.”

The team also signed quarterback Cody Keith and offensive lineman Palmer White, the latter only getting a call after the sudden and unexpected retirement of offensive lineman Jake Olson. The 28-year-old suffered a torn patella in September 2015 and the team kept him on the roster for all of last year as he rehabbed from the injury, hoping he could make a late-season return that never materialized.

Olson started 21 games over two seasons with the Ticats, and was thought to be candidate for a starting job coming into training camp. But the knee has yet to fully heal and Olson recently became a father for the first time. Those two factors led to his decision to call it a day.

“It was a big surprise. He’s had quite a few surgeries so I get that, but it was probably more family than anything,” Austin said. “He made a decision that he thought was best for him and his family.”

The team also announced a couple of other retirements, in American running-back Jeremy Stewart, who got accepted at the highly-acclaimed Wharton business school; and Canadian receiver Matt Uren, who decided to call it quits after getting an employment opportunity. Canadian defensive back Tyler Storie was also released.

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