Injuries leave Ticats roster missing some key pieces

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats made their final cuts over the weekend — and while there’s still some tinkering to do, many of the questions the team had heading into training camp have been answered.

The Ticats released 24 players on Saturday night, while also adding another seven to the practice roster.

There weren’t any jaw-dropping names among the departed, the most notable being veteran defensive Dominique Ellis, who played in all 18 games last season and made 13 starts. Coming into training camp, he was thought to be a candidate for the vacant strong-side linebacker position, but struggled in the pre-season while playing several spots.

“There’s always going to be tough choices, but we feel pretty good about the guys that are here,” head coach Kent Austin said. “It’s mostly what we thought. Obviously, not having Abdul Kanneh and Emanuel Davis for most of camp threw us for a curve in the secondary. But we’re pleased with the talent level that we have and we’ll see how quickly we can get them playing well.”

Kanneh and Davis were two of the team’s biggest signings over the winter: Kanneh coming over from Ottawa and Davis re-upping after a dabble with free agency. Both were all-stars last season and they were supposed to provide some stability to what had been a shaky secondary.

Davis has been added to the roster from the suspended list, a sign that the groin injury he suffered early in camp is on the mend; but Austin says he won’t be ready for Saturday’s opener against Toronto.

Kanneh, meanwhile, is “very questionable.” With Ellis gone, newcomer Will Hill could be at the all-important strong-side linebacker spot. Or maybe Demond Washington. Or ….

If the starting defensive backfield is still unsettled, at least we know who will be doing the kicking. With the release of Anthony Fera, Sergio Castillo is the last man standing.

The 26-year-old was one of seven kickers who attended the team’s mini-camp in April, then beat out Ryan Hawkins, Craig Peterson and finally Fera to win the job. After their first pre-season game, Hamilton reportedly took a run at Brett Maher, who was the team’s kicker last season, but he signed with the Ottawa Redblacks.

Castillo, known primarily as a place-kicker in his previous CFL stints with Winnipeg and Ottawa, punted well in the pre-season — with a 46-yard average on 11 kicks. He did not attempt a field goal but connected on three of four extra points.

“It’s a complete evaluation from the start of camp all the way through pre-season games. He was just the most consistent guy,” Austin said. “We trust Sergio and think and believe and hope that he’ll do a great job for us.”

Sounds like the ratio — where the Ticats will start their seven Canadians on offence and defence — has been settled as well. Austin says Mike Atkinson, who missed both pre-season games due to injury, will be ready to play Saturday; meaning the team can line up with two national defensive tackles, three offensive lineman, safety Courtney Stephen and receiver Mike Jones.

That said, the Ticats do have some flexibility for when things (inevitably) go wrong. The development of second-year players like running back Mercer Timmis and receiver Felix Flaubert-Lussier, along with a strong performance from the 2017 CFL draft class — defensive end Conner McGough deserves mention here — has given Austin some margin for injury.

“As a whole, the guys performed better than we thought,” Austin said. “We had high expectations for them, but when you look at how quickly they learned things and actually translated that to the football field, it was pretty impressive.”

Now, will these training camp performances translate to the regular season? That may be the biggest question of all.

Notes: The Ticats still have a few moves to make with injury rosters to be set on Tuesday, along with few practice roster spots still open. … With Alex Green released, sophomore Ross Scheuerman will be the backup running back behind C.J. Gable. … The release of four American offensive tackles means that at least for now there are no reserves behind Xavier Fulton and Jordan Swindle, who won the job at right tackle. Expect the team to bring in at least one guy, either from other teams or a neg list player. … Jalen Saunders looked great early in camp before getting hurt and Damarr Aultman looked good late in camp. Both were added to the practice roster. … Quarterback Cody Keith was released.

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