Mid-season answers to Ticats’ pre-season questions

Back before the season began plenty of people had questions about just who the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were. After bringing back almost everyone from a season ago in an unprecedented showing of continuity, many wondered if the Ticats would be the team we saw go 0-8 to start the 2017 season or the 6-4 squad we saw nearly make a miraculous run to the playoffs.

While questions, such as if the Ticats will break their current 19-year Grey Cup drought, can’t be answered until much later, there are some we can answer as we pass the halfway point of the 2018 season.

Can Jeremiah Masoli be “the guy”?

Where Jeremiah Masoli ranks in the hierarchy of current CFL quarterbacks is still a matter for debate, but what isn’t debatable is that he is the man for the Ticats at QB. He is second in the league in passing yards, pilots the league’s No. 1 offence and is firmly entrenched as Hamilton’s starter. Despite onlookers (*cough* TSN *cough*) not believing the Ticats were committed to Masoli when they courted and eventually signed Johnny Manziel, the team never wavered in their belief that he was their No. 1 guy. He has rewarded that belief with mostly stellar play as the Ticats, while just 5-5, sit in second place in the East just one game behind the first-place Ottawa Redblacks. While there is still room for improvement — his 12:11 TD-to-INT ratio is not ideal — there should be no question as to whether Masoli has done enough to warrant being given the keys to the franchise.

Who plays SAM?

The Ticats have been searching for stability at the SAM linebacker position ever since Erik Harris left for the NFL following the 2015 season. I have lost count at the number of players they have rotated through, either due to injury or ineffective play, and when the 2018 season began it looked like it would be another year of trying to find someone to fill that role.

Enter Don Unamba.

After spending his first season in Hamilton in the secondary, Unamba was thrust into the SAM linebacker role after injuries took their toll on the players thought to have the inside track to the job in training camp, namely Mariel Cooper and D.J. May. Unamba started in Week 1 and hasn’t given the job back. His play has been tremendous, with 29 tackles and four sacks in 10 games. After a long search it finally looks like the Ticats have a permanent answer to their SAM linebacker question.

Who replaces Ryan Bomben?

When the Ticats dealt Ryan Bomben on the eve of the 2018 draft, many were shocked. Many more wondered why the team, which had been searching for years to find stability on the offensive line, would deal their best lineman to a division rival to move one spot up in the draft. The Ticats now had a hole to fill on their offensive line and many believed Landon Rice would be the guy to fill it, and while Rice played well and found a role on the team until he was dealt to Montreal in the Johnny Manziel trade (he has since returned to the Ticats), it was a player not even on the roster when the deal was made that has taken Bomben’s old spot and run with it.

Darius Ciraco, the University of Calgary product the Ticats selected with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, has started at guard since Week 1 and has not looked out of place. It is very rare for a rookie to come in and start right away, even more so for a rookie who was developed at a USports school. But not only has Ciraco played, but he has played well and the Ticats have not really missed a beat without Bomben. If you were scripting the best-case scenario, this is it.

Can the team find continuity in the secondary?

It had become almost a yearly conundrum: what will Hamilton’s secondary look like? Year after year, the Ticats cycled through numerous players hoping to find the right mix to make their secondary something to fear. Coming into this season was no different, and while the Ticats’ secondary played well in a Week 1 loss to Calgary (they held former MOP Bo Levi Mitchell to under 50 per cent passing), it was the addition of former all-star Delvin Breaux that really made this unit click.

Breaux’s return completely changed the secondary, and while there have been some issues with injuries, the Ticats secondary has been pretty darn good over the first half of the season. Breaux has gone back to being the league’s elite boundary corner (just ask TSN’s Derek Taylor); rookie Jumal Rolle has carved out a very good role for himself as the team’s field corner; Cariel Brooks has spent the season as Breaux’s mate on the boundary side and the best thing you can say about him is you don’t hear anyone talk about him (honestly, that’s a good thing); Richard Leonard, last year’s team nominee for top rookie, has had sophomore slump, struggling due to injury and ineffective play, but we saw what he was capable of last year; and Mike Daly, who beat out Courtney Stephen for the starting safety spot, has steadily improved each week and had the game-altering interception against the Argos on Labour Day.

The team also has depth, with players like Frankie Williams and the recently signed Josh Johnson filling in and playing well when needed. Williams started on Labour Day with Leonard still out due to injury, and Johnson stepped in for Breaux when the latter left the Classic after suffering an injury.

Hamilton has the No. 1 pass defence in the CFL right now and have stymied almost every QB they’ve faced (including Bo Levi Mitchell and Mike Reilly). Any worries that we had about the secondary have been washed away. Hamilton’s last line of defence is as good as any in the CFL right now.

Can Jerry Glanville succeed in the CFL?

There were plenty of snickers when it was announced that Jerry Glanville would be joining the Ticats as the team’s new defensive coordinator. Jokes about his age and his weird idiosyncrasies abounded. But all Glanville has done over the first half of his first season as a CFL defensive coordinator is make Hamilton’s defence one of the best in the league. Hamilton has the league’s top passing defence, second overall defence and the No. 2 scoring defence. Not bad for a unit led by 76-year-old who had never coached in the CFL before.

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