The Hamilton Tiger-Cats finished last season by winning six of their last 10 games, injecting some much-needed optimism into the franchise after a dreadful 0-8 start. With much of last year’s squad returning – including head coach June Jones, quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and star receiver Brandon Banks – the Ticats feel they have a strong nucleus upon which to build.
With that said, there are still a number of questions as the team gets set to open training camp on Sunday so here’s a position-by-position look at the 2018 edition, starting with the offence. We’ll follow up with defence and special teams on Friday.
For the first time in his career, Masoli comes into camp as the undisputed No. 1 quarterback. His performance after taking over as the starter on Labour Day – 15 touchdowns against five interceptions and a 64 per cent completion percentage – was enough to earn him a contract extension that pays him like an upper-echelon guy.
The real battle will take place for the backup job. With Johnny Manziel still unsigned, the team has three contenders for the role: Vernon Adams, acquired via a trade with Saskatchewan, Bryant Moniz who has 38 games of CFL experience but last played for the Riders in 2016 and Dane Evans, who signed with Hamilton late last year.
Even if Manziel does show up, there’s no guarantee he wins what head coach June Jones says will be an open competition largely decided by performances in the team’s two exhibition games.
The big question: Who’s the backup?
Alex Green finished 2017 as the starter following the trade that sent veteran C.J. Gable to Edmonton but he’ll face some stiff competition from another former NFLer in Storm Johnson. The team also used Nikita Whitlock, who played defensive line last season but has some experience on offence, in the backfield during mini-camp.
The Ticats also have high expectations for national Mercer Timmis, who missed the second half of last season after suffering an injury on Labour Day. A former second-round draft pick, Timmis gives them a capable Canadian backup and some ratio flexibility with Sean Thomas-Erlington, who spent some time at receiver at mini-camp, providing even further depth.
At this point, the Ticats do not have a fullback on the roster having not re-signed Canadian C.O. Prime, who filled the role the last five years. Prime was used primarily as a blocking back in run sets but Jones may elect to forego that alignment this season.
The big question: Who’s the starter?
The Ticats had three receivers with at least 1,000 yards last season and all three – Brandon Banks, Luke Tasker and Jalen Saunders – are set to return. Banks will have to show he can replicate last season’s remarkable performance, Tasker needs to stay healthy and Saunders will need to avoid a sophomore jinx but it’s a very solid foundation.
Canadian Shamawd Chambers, who had 28 catches in seven games after coming over from Edmonton last September, will likely fill one of the two remaining spots but whether the team elects to start a second national remains to be seen.
If they do, Felix Faubert-Lussier, who had a strong mini-camp, will be a candidate, as will Mike Jones, who started 11 games last season. First overall pick Mark Chapman was considered one of the most pro-ready players in the draft but remains a long shot to earn a starting role right out of camp.
If June Jones decides to start a fourth American then Terrence Toliver will have to show he’s all the way back from the torn ACL suffered in week one last season and second-year man Damarr Aultman should be in the mix. The team also has the usual crop of unknowns coming to camp and names to keep an eye on include Andrew Turzilli, Harvey Binford and Jarvis Baxter.
The big question: Can Toliver get back to the form that made him a 1,000 yard guy in 2016?
The Ticats looked set to bring back the line that finished last season intact but all that changed when the club dealt all-star guard Ryan Bomben to the Montreal Alouettes in exchange for a package that included the first overall pick in the draft.
That’s opened up a spot at right guard where several Canadians (and potentially an American) figure to be in the mix. Veteran Landon Rice, who has appeared in 53 games over the last four seasons primarily as a backup, is likely the leading contender though the unexpected return of Mathieu Girard, who unretired this week, is another solid option.
The team also has a bevy of youngsters, including 2017 second-rounder Braden Schram, fellow sophomore Brett Golding and 2018 first round pick Darius Ciraco as well as Everton Williams and Kay Okafor. From that group of seven, they need a starter and likely two solid backups.
However, Jones could decide to alter their ratio and start a third American on the line – a recent trend in a league where the health of the starting quarterback is paramount. Casey Blaser spent some time with the club at the tail end of last season and will be a factor either in a reserve role or as a starter at tackle with Ryker Mathews moving inside.
The big question: who starts at right guard?
Jones’ decision to return as head coach – he also has full say over the roster – was the first domino that led to several potential free agents returning in the off-season. Masoli, Banks and others have talked about the culture change that Jones brought about after taking over last year.
Whether Jones can maintain the good vibes throughout the up and downs of a full season is something of an unknown, as is the CFL coaching acumen of 76-year-old Jerry Glanville, who joins as defensive coordinator after a long career in the NFL and NCAA.
The return of Orlondo Steinauer, back as assistant head coach after a year in the NCAA, should provide a steadying hand and plenty of CFL experience.
The big question: Can Glanville get it done in the CFL?