It has been a week and it still feels weird to see Chris Van Zeyl in black and gold.
Arguably the best Canadian offensive lineman — and probably inarguably the best Canadian offensive tackle — was released by the Toronto Argonauts last weekend and just hours later was signed by the Ticats.
The signing came as no shock to me, as once Van Zeyl’s release was announced, it only made sense he would wind up in Hamilton. Guys going up and down the QEW is nothing new — we have seen it a few times just this off-season, with Justin Tuggle and Mercer Timmis. But add in the Jim Barker factor — the former Argos GM is now a consultant with the Ticats — Van Zeyl’s Burlington residency, his McMaster roots and being from nearby Fonthill, it just made sense that the Ticats would be the landing spot for the two-time Grey Cup champ.
Adding Van Zeyl to the team’s full stock of Canadian talent gives the Ticats ratio flexibility beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Starting four Canadians on the offensive line is almost assured, with Van Zeyl joining Darius Ciraco, Mike Filer and Brandon Revenberg up front. Ted Laurent will once again be a force on the defensive line, Mike Daly will man the safety position, and Mike Jones will hope to replicate his stellar 2018 season as one of the team’s starting wideouts. So there are your seven starters and we haven’t even got to the very real possibility that the Ticats start a Canadian at running back (more on that in a bit). Oh, and Jamaal Westerman and Tunde Adeleke are still milling around somewhere looking to make an impact. I might get some push back from fans of other teams, but it is pretty hard to make a case that Hamilton doesn’t have best top-end Canadian talent in the CFL (without even touching on the team’s recent slew of draftees).
It’s not just the ratio implications that Van Zeyl brings either. He is a veteran presence on a somewhat young offensive line. Van Zeyl is the only offensive lineman on the Ticats’ roster over the age of 30. He also helps the Ticats answer one question from the off-season: who will play the tackle positions.
Who will play the other tackle position was still a question, but that was seemingly answered on Sunday when the team brought back Ryker Mathews. Mathews spent the last two years with the Ticats, playing in 26 games and was a linchpin on the offensive line after being inserted into the starting lineup on Labour Day in 2017. Mathews stellar play earned him a shot with the New England Patriots, but when that didn’t pan out he came back north.
The only question that remains now is who will play what side. Both Van Zeyl and Mathews have excelled at right tackle, but one will have to switch to the left side. Mathews has experience on the left side from his time in college with BYU, so I expect they will deploy him there and leave Van Zeyl in his more comfortable right tackle spot.
No matter which way you slice it the Ticats offensive line got immensely better over the last week with the addition of Van Zeyl and the re-addition of Mathews. The Ticats now boast an offensive line that will be in the conversation for the best in the league, and with the offensive skill position players they have and Tommy Condell calling the plays, the sky is now truly the limit for the Ticats on offence.
Last Monday was a holiday, which allowed me to head down to Ticats’ training camp to check things out. These are some thoughts from the things I saw (all of this is prefaced with “I know it’s training camp where everyone looks great and hopes spring eternal.”)
1. It looks possible, and maybe even likely, that the Ticats will start a Canadian at running back to start the season. Former eighth-round pick Sean Thomas-Erlington was with the starters on Monday, and the recently converted Jackson Bennett was running with the second unit. Both players made some great plays, with Bennett having a beautiful catch-and-run for a touchdown in one of the scrimmage sessions that got the crowd in the stands at Ron Joyce Stadium hooting and hollering. With Maleek Irons also on the roster, the Ticats have the horses needed to make a ratio change at running back. The change will have ripple effects on the rest of the roster, as it could allow the Ticats to start two American defensive ends.
2. Cameron Marshall, the lone veteran American running back, shouldn’t be left out in the cold. He was part of the first-team special teams unit, and his ability to play specials is probably why the team parted ways with Alex Green.
3. I spent some time watching Jesse Gibbon — fun fact for anyone who cares (which is mostly me): Gibbon and I attended the same high school in Hamilton (Sherwood Secondary School), though he did it long after I had passed through those halls — and he didn’t look out of place with the team’s second unit. He held his own well, but did get beat fairly badly once during team sessions, which is to be expected when a rookie is at his first training camp. But all in all, Gibbon came as advertised.
4. Ticats fans are going to love Dylan Wynn. The guy has a motor that just doesn’t quit. He is going to be a huge fan favourite when the season starts. Ditto Justin Tuggle, who is head and shoulders above the rest of the pack in the battle to see who will replace Larry Dean.
5. Masoli to Banks is not going anywhere. In one-on-ones and in the scrimmage, Masoli threw some darts to Banks. The timing and touch on some of Masoli’s throws, especially those to the sideline, were mouth-gappingly good.
6. Delvin Breaux is still Delvin Breaux. Masoli tested him a few times in scrimmage, with a one-handed interception being the result of one such testing.
7. With Rico Murray still yet to report, Demontre Hurst was taking most of the first-team reps at SAM linebacker.
8. Injuries have reared their ugly head at camp. Mike Filer left Monday’s session with what looked like an arm injury, and both Adrian Tracy and Jamaal Westerman sat out most of Monday’s practice as well. I also didn’t see Mathieu Girard, who I found out afterwards was resting, or Lucas Wacha, who was watching and is hard to spot without his signature long hair, take part either.
9. We have seen a few players released since camp opened and I’m sure some Ticats fans are a little perplexed as to why. On Monday, Rashad Lawrence was running with the starters on offence and found himself released later in the week. Lawrence didn’t perform poorly, but the Ticats have a massive amount of receivers and camp and two who stood out, and likely made Lawrence expendable, were Justin Thomas and Jaelon Acklin. Thomas made some very nice catches, and Acklin is going everything he can to make the team (no, I was not there when he got in a fight with Delvin Breaux). Both guys made an impression, and I can’t say Lawrence did.
The team also released a trio of Canadians in Nicholas Parisotto, Mitch O’Connor and Sheridan Lawley, the latter being one of the team’s third-round picks earlier this month. O’Connor looked decent on Monday, but with Mike Jones, Shamawd Chambers, David Ungerer, Marcus Davis and Brian Jones, his path to the roster was a steep one. Parisotto was a player the team was developing, but with the arrival of Tunde Adeleke and the continued special teams excellence of Jay Langa, he was likely a long shot to make the team. Lawley was a project player to begin with, and the Ticats don’t lack for talent along the defensive line, so they cut bait earlier than one might expect.
10. Lastly, I haven’t been able to attend a training camp session since all the way back in 2012, which we all remember as the year George Cortez was the head coach. It was also the year of “Screaming” Casey Creehan as the team’s defensive coordinator. It was a complete 180 watching this group of coaches. I will single out linebackers coach Robin Ross here, since I sat closest to the drills he was running. Whenever a player made a mistake during a drill, Ross would stop what they were doing, explain to the player what he did wrong and then make them run the drill again. When the drill was inevitably run correctly — and it seemed to always be run correctly the second time — Ross was quick with the positive reinforcement. Ross was even quick with the praise when a player did something well at any point during drills. I know some like the old-school idea of the dictator coach, but you could see Ross’ tactics working. Players held themselves accountable and were eager to make amends for their error. No screaming, no demeaning, just coaching and teaching. It was a pleasure to see.