Camp preview, Part 2: Ticats defence gets a reset

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

With the offence covered previously, it is now time to shift our focus to the defensive and special teams sides of the Ticats. Both units saw some significant changes during the off-season, both in personnel and coaching, so both will likely be very different from a year ago.

The area where Hamilton made some of their most drastic changes was along the defensive line. Gone are Jason Neill, Nikita Whitlock and Justin Capicciotti, replaced by Dylan Wynn and Ja’Gared Davis. Davis was Hamilton’s major off-season acquisition, signing as a free agent after spending the last three years with the Calgary Stampeders. Wynn, who was added to the team just before camp, was a stud for the Argos the last two years. Both pickups are major upgrades from what the team had a year ago and will likely make Hamilton’s defensive front a much more fearsome unit.

Teaming up with the two newbies are a pair of returning Canadian veterans in Ted Laurent and Jamaal Westerman. Laurent had a stellar 2018, recording eight sacks and being named the team’s top Canadian. Westerman, who came over in a mid-season trade, wasn’t able to really settle in before an injury ended his season early. Expect Westerman to be much more effective in 2019.

The Ticats’ depth along the front four is fairly envious and will allow the Ticats to put together a nice rotation of players and keep everyone fresh. Justin Vaughn, Julian Howsare and Adrian Tracy have made major contributions to the Ticats over the years, especially Tracy. With the release of Capicciotti, expect a much bigger role for former first-round pick Connor McGough this year. McGough enters his third season and it is probably time to find out if he can go from being a special teams asset to a defensive one.

Simoni Lawrence is the lone returning starter from last season’s Ticats linebacking corps, as his battery mates Larry Dean and Don Unamba took their talents out west to Edmonton. Replacing Dean won’t be easy, but might not be as hard as some expect. The Ticats have been able to unearth linebacking talent, with Dean being one of the unknowns who became a superstar. Justin Tuggle was signed away from the Argos and is more than likely pencilled in right now as the starter. But Lucas Wacha has spent last season with the team, playing mostly on special teams, and could be a sleeper to replace Dean. Also, do not count out recent signee Chris Frey who was a stud at Michigan State.

Finding a SAM has become a bit of a right of passage for the Ticats since Erik Harris took his talents south to the NFL. But despite it being the same question we have had for years, the answer this time around might be easier to find. Options abound, whether the Ticats want to go Canadian or not. Tunde Adeleke, signed away from the Stamps in the winter, has starting experience, and Jackson Bennett, who may or may not have switched to running back, could be given a chance after an injury-filled rookie campaign saw him mostly contribute on special teams. The team also brought back Rico Murray, who spent the last two years with East rivals Toronto and Ottawa, respectively. Whether it is Adeleke, Bennett, Murray or someone else entirely, the Ticats don’t lack for SAM options this time around.

Hamilton’s secondary has been a source of consternation amongst fans for years but it seemed like the team finally settled on an effective unit a year ago. Getting Delvin Breaux back certainly helped, and the all-star will be back once again after inking a three-year deal with the team in the winter. Returning with Breaux is his boundary mate from a year ago, Cariel Brooks. Brooks was an East all-star last year, and the two will likely form formidable duo once again.

On the field side, Richard Leonard is back after a disappointing sophomore season. Leonard was a legit top-rookie contender in 2017, but came back down to earth in 2018. He is no doubt eager to prove that last season was the aberration. Jumal Rolle is also back as the team’s field-side corner.

Mike Daly beat out Courtney Stephen for the starting safety spot a year ago and never looked back. As good as Daly was, he could be pushed this year by Tunde Adeleke if the team opts not to use him at SAM. The Ticats have a plethora of DB prospects in camp, so we might see some changes to the lineup even though the secondary was quite good a year ago.

Much like the offence, one of the biggest changes to the defence happened on the coaching staff. Jerry Glanville departs after one season and is replaced by former B.C. Lions DC Mark Washington. Washington spent the last five years as B.C.’s defensive coordinator, overseeing a defence that was, for the most part, very successful. It is going to be a much different scheme this season, but don’t expect much of a drop off given Washington’s pedigree.

On specials, we see the return of Lirim Hajrullahu, who signed a new two-year deal with theta after flirting with the NFL. I think it is fair to say that Hajrullahu had a somewhat tumultuous season last year, his first with the Ticats. His field goal kicking was quite good, especially from distance where he was seven for seven on field goals 50 yards or longer. But his punting left a lot to be desired, and his kickoffs were… well, he had a streak of eight games where he shank one out of bounds. Being the only Canadian who does all three kicking jobs makes him an asset, but he needs to become more reliable in two of those three areas to make it worth it.

Ever since Brandon Banks stopped being the team’s primary return man, the Ticats have not been as successful on special teams. Last year saw the team cycle through a number of players, with the returning Frankie Williams being the most consistent. Adeleke is blazing fast and has plenty of return experience and could be used in that role with the Ticats this year. I expect we will see a lot of players given a chance to be the team’s primary returner and we likely won’t know who the guy will be until after camp and the pre-season. This is a battle worth keeping an eye on.

Coverage units don’t get a lot of love, but the Ticats will likely be solid in this area once again this year. The team’s best cover unit guy, and top special teamer from a year ago, Courtney Stephen, may be elsewhere, but the Ticats still have a number of talented coverage players in Jay Langa, Lucas Wacha and Curtis Newton. The return of Nick Shortill should be a boon to this unit as well.

Long snapper Aaron Crawford also returns, so they are in good hands there.

And like every other part of the team, the coach overseeing special teams will also be new… sorta. Jeff Reinebold returns to where he arguably had his most success as a coach. When Reinebold ran the Ticats’ special teams from 2013-16, there was no better special teams unit in the league. Given Reinebold’s knowledge of the Canadian game, and his knack for getting the most out of his players, I expect Hamilton to be at or near the top of the league in all special teams categories once again.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.