With a key divisional matchup with the Ottawa Redblacks coming up Friday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are stuck playing an unfortunate game of ‘what if?’ when it comes to their roster.
A rash of injuries to the team’s Canadian defensive linemen plus the uncertain status of a few key contributors has forced head coach Kent Austin and his staff to make some tough lineup decisions, particularly when it comes to fielding seven starting Canadians.
“Where does the next national go in, and how does that affect other positions, and how do we move the pieces around to adhere to the ratio?” he said.
“We spent a lot of time this week playing ‘what if?'”
Despite the absence of all-star defensive tackle Ted Laurent (whose lower body injury kept him out of practice again on Wednesday), Mike Atkinson (who is on the six-game injured list) and Evan Gill (gone with a suspected Achilles injury) the Ticats look like they still plan to start a Canadian on the interior of the defence: rookie Justin Vaughn.
The 23-year-old was a fifth-round pick in the 2017 CFL draft and has suited up for every game this season, but this would be his first start. He has seven defensive tackles on the year in limited action.
“He’s played some and he’s getting better,” Austin said of Vaughn. “The good news is he has experience in this game.”
The affable Vaughn is a Hamilton native, his father Mike a former Ticat who played in just one game in 1990 but stayed in Canada and built a life in the city. Justin played his high school ball at Sir Allan MacNab — his brother Quincy is currently the quarterback — and starred at Fordham before being selected by his hometown team.
“It’s fast and way more physical than college, but I’m starting to pick it up now. I’ve got some experience so it isn’t going to be a shock to my body or a shock mentally,” Vaughn said. “Maybe I’m a little bit more nervous, but it’s time to be a pro and get the job done. Everybody is going to be counting on me this week.”
But the Ticats do not have another healthy Canadian defensive tackle available, so if Vaughn gets hurt at any point, they’ll have to make a ratio change elsewhere. The options include national Mercer Timmis at running back or go to two Canadian receivers. It’s likely the team will dress three Canadian wideouts: Mike Jones, Felix Faubert-Lussier and Giovanni Aprile.
The news is somewhat better in the secondary where veterans Demond Washington and Emanuel Davis will play this week. Washington has been battling knee issues while Davis caught food poisoning before last week’s game after missing the first six weeks with a lower body issue.
“I played with broken bones on the field, torn ligaments, but this was some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced,” said Davis, who lost 11 pounds after eating some bad takeout the night before the game. “I didn’t think food could do that to you.”
One question that’s likely been answered as well: the future of former defensive co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold, who was demoted on Aug. 7 and offered another spot on the coaching staff. But Austin said Reinebold, who has been away from the team for more than a week, is unlikely to return.
“I would say it’s not looking good,” Austin said. “I don’t want to slam the gavel down completely on it.”
Reinebold took to Twitter this week to defend Austin after there were reports that fans were wearing bags on the heads during last Saturday’s 39-12 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Austin, who doesn’t use social media, said he was nonetheless aware of Reinebold’s comments.
“I love the man,” Austin said. “I’m happy that he did that, not because others need to hear it, just because it shows that our relationship is still intact, and that’s what’s most important.”