Luke Tasker will forever be grateful to Kent Austin.
Austin was Tasker’s head coach at Cornell, then gave him another lease on his pro football life by adding him to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats practice roster in 2013 after being released by the NFL’s San Diego Chargers.
The five-foot-11, 189-pound Tasker has repeatedly justified Austin’s faith. The 27-year-old slotback is closing in on a third 1,000-yard season (61 catches, 916 yards, six TDs) with Hamilton (7-7), on a bye this week standing second in the East Division behind Ottawa (8-5).
“This is my sixth season and I don’t know if I’m here without him,” Tasker said. “And who knows if it’s with Hamilton, an area my wife and I have fallen in love with and its proximity to Buffalo and our home.
“I owe much to my relationship with Kent and Tommy Condell (former Ticats offensive co-ordinator and Cornell assistant), that’s why I came here because I was familiar with their system. They trusted me and it’s how much they trusted me that I was able to make it up here. I owe a lot of that to Kent.”
Austin enjoyed early success after being hired as Hamilton’s head coach, GM and vice-president of football operations in December 2012. Over the next four seasons, he led the Ticats to two East Division titles, two Grey Cup appearances (2013-14) and three conference finals.
Austin resigned as coach last year after Hamilton’s 0-8 start. He hired June Jones as interim coach while remaining as vice-president of football operations.
Jones became Hamilton’s full-time head coach after posting a 6-4 record. In April, the Ticats announced Austin had become a consultant with the franchise.
Having a full season under Jones has benefited Hamilton’s offence. The Ticats are second overall in net offensive yards (406.2 per game) and third in passing (311) and rushing yards (112.2).
Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who Jones immediately promoted to starter upon becoming the Ticats coach, is second overall in passing yards (4,286). Brandon Banks (78 catches, 1,112 yards, nine TDs) and Tasker are second and fifth, respectively, in CFL receiving.
“We just threw ourselves into the fire last year and kind of installed an offence on the fly and got it working,” Tasker said. “June has his offence already in place.
“It’s been polished and refined over all these years he’s run it and now it’s been tweaked to the CFL game. I think we all have a level of comfort that comes with experience compared to last year.”
Hamilton can determine where it finishes in the East as its final four regular-season games are against division opponents. That includes a home-and-home with Ottawa (Oct. 19 at TD Place, then Tim Hortons Field on Oct. 27).
Amazingly, that will be Hamilton’s fourth back-to-back this season.
“I’ve started to like them a little more,” Tasker said. “Just because the prep for that second game is a little simpler . . . you’re only watching one game, your last game.
“In a great way, we control our own destiny right now. If we went 4-0 there’s no way we’re not first. These next four games will determine a lot.”
Tasker comes by his football prowess honestly. His father, Steve, played 13 NFL seasons as a receiver and special-teams standout with Houston and Buffalo, being named to the Pro Bowl seven times and a first-team All-Pro on five occasions.
“As players, I think we’re different,” Luke Tasker said. “He’s remembered as an underrated player, a blue collar-type and he was, certainly.
“But if you talk to people he played with, my dad was actually a world-class athlete. Yeah, he was short but he could out-athletic people.”
Tasker believes the best attribute he got from his father was perspective.
“I don’t feel undue pressure,” he said. “Certainly not pressure to be like my dad but to ignore the idea, ‘Oh wow, you could get cut or traded,’ and put it aside because someday that could happen.
“Rather, just feel fortunate to play the game and enjoy my teammates. I can’t say he thought about it during his playing years the way I do but I certainly could see it all over him. Growing up, I had no concept of the flow of the season or playoff runs. But I do remember seeing dad’s friendships with his teammates, the locker room, the blue and red of the Bills. It was fun and exciting as a kid.”
Fatherhood has also helped shape Tasker. In January, Tasker’s wife, Jenna, gave birth to a son, Steele James.
“It’s made me be more deliberate in everything I do,” he said. “When I’m home, it’s time to really focus on your family.
“When you’re at the stadium, it’s time to really be deliberate in how you prepare. Maybe it’s just inherent, there’s more meaning to life, it adds to your perspective. I just feel like I have a very colourful, very happy life right now.”
Life could get better in November if Tasker’s celebrating Hamilton’s first Grey Cup title since ’99.
“Man, that would be good for the league and certainly the city,” Tasker said. “I’m hesitant to overstate it but I feel like it would be just so special for me, I really have a burning desire to win a Grey Cup.
“You hear speeches all the time from guys who’ve won championships and realized, ‘It’s still not everything I want, it’s still not the whole story, there’s more to be had.’ I understand that and it’s good to keep a healthy perspective but part of me wants to say it would mean everything. It would be everything for our team to do that.”