Ticats training camp preview part 2: the defence

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats defence was a huge liability during last season’s 0-8 start and while things improved over the latter half of 2017, new defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville still has some holes to fill. As the team gets set to open training camp on Sunday, here’s a position-by-position look at the defence.

Defensive line

The Ticats are talented and deep up front led by Canadian defensive tackle Ted Laurent who will look to return to all-star form after an injury-hampered 2017 that saw him play in just 12 games. Defensive end Adrian Tracy had nine sacks in 10 games after moving into a full-time starting role after John Chick was dealt last August and Canadian Justin Capicciotti chipped in with seven quarterback take downs. Davon Coleman, a QB killer in his rookie season, rounds out the starting group.

There’s plenty of depth as well. Canadians Justin Vaughn (tackle) and Connor McGough (end) had excellent rookie campaigns and will likely see more playing time – they could likely start if necessary.

On the American side, Nikita Whitlock is a useful piece who can play multiple spots – he may get some time on offence – while Jason Neill played in six games in 2017. Newcomer Julian Howsare, who spent time with the New York Jets and was on the Hamilton neg list before signing in February, is a name to watch.

The big question: Can the kids step up if injuries hit?

Linebackers

The Ticats are set on the weak side and in the middle with former East Division Most Outstanding Defensive Player Simoni Lawrence and 2017 East all-star Larry Dean locked into those spots. Lawrence’s numbers were down last year but reports out of mini-camp were that he looked back to his old self.

The big question is at the strong side spot where the Ticats cycled through a number of players last year without finding a permanent solution. At mini-camp, it was Mariel Cooper at the SAM and while he has the size and physicality, his lack of CFL experience (just two games played last year) may be a challenge.

The team also has two solid Canadians in Terrell Davis and Nick Shortill who can back up, play situationally and even start if necessary (they are both excellent special teams players to boot.)

The big question: Who starts on the strong side?

Defensive backs

The secondary was, in a word, awful during the team’s 0-8 start last season but rallied to right the ship during the team’s second-half run. Much of that unit is back but some key questions remain.

Canadian Courtney Stephen will start at safety and the halfbacks will be Abdul Kanneh – assuming he’s not pressed into service at the SAM – and last year’s East Division Most Outstanding Rookie Richard Leonard. That’s a solid group and there’s plenty of quality depth behind Stephen in Jay Langa and Mike Daly.

Veteran Demond Washington played the boundary corner at mini-camp but he’s undersized and has more experience on the field side while Don Unamba, who played mostly boundary last year, was at the field. Cariel Brooks, who played in 11 games last year, will be in the mix and the team will likely look to find a diamond in the rough from a large class of rookies (and hey, they found Leonard last year.)

The big question: Who starts at corner?

Special teams

The Ticats have held an open kicking competition during the last two training camps and while that turned out well – both Brett Maher and Sergio Castillo performed well – there isn’t much guess work this time around.

Canadian Lirim Hajrullahu was signed as a free agent in February and he’ll be charged with performing all three kicking duties. The only potential issue: without another kicker on the roster, Hajrullahu needs to stay healthy through camp.

Veteran long snapper Aaron Crawford tore his ACL late last season and remains an unsigned free agent, though he could return if and when he’s healthy. Local product Kevin Malcolm, signed after Crawford went down, will likely handle the snapping duties though offensive lineman Mathieu Girard, back after a one-year retirement, can do the job as well.

The departure of Canadian linebackers Geoff Hughes (retired) and Mitch Barnett (signed with B.C.) means the Ticats will need some kick cover guys to emerge in camp, though the team leaders in special teams tackles, Langa and McGough, are back.

In the return game, with Brandon Banks now a full-time receiver he’ll only be used sporadically to return kicks. Willie Quinn showed flashes of having the same kind of dynamic speed that Banks’ has and could be a breakout player for the team this season.

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