Position battles (that aren’t QB) to watch at Ticats’ training camp

Photo courtesy: Alex Lupul/AlexLupul.com

With training camps opening across the CFL this weekend, one of the talking points around the league is who will start at quarterback for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but that is not the only positional battle set to take place over the next three weeks at Tim Hortons Field.

Despite having led the league in most major statistical categories in 2019, and finishing a league-best 15-3 in the regular season, the Ticats have seen their fair share of departures since they last took the field.

While everyone understandably wants to talk about Jeremiah Masoli vs. Dave Evans — and will do so until a starter is officially declared, that’s just the way it works in football — it is ground we have already covered, so let us look at some other positions that should see some fierce completion and will shape what team the Ticats will be in 2021.

Running back

Contenders: Don Jackson, Sean Thomas-Erlington

Quick question: can you name the last Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ running back to rush for 1,000 yards and what year it was? If you answered DeAndra’ Cobb in 2010, pat yourself on the back. In the 10 years since Cobb cracked 1,000 yards, the Ticats have cycled through a lot of running backs.

Avon Cobourne, Chevon Walker, C.J. Gable, Alex Green, John White, Cameron Marshall, Tyrell Sutton and the list goes on and on. It has been a long time since the Ticats had any sort of consistency in their ground game.

Thomas-Erlington looked like he was ready to provide that in 2019, but a knee injury in the fourth game of the season ended his campaign abruptly. It was a shame, too, since he was magnificent in his short time as the team’s No. 1 back. Two years removed from the injury, Thomas-Erlington looks ready to retake his spot.

But the Ticats haven’t handed the talented Canadian the keys just yet, as the team signed Don Jackson from the Calgary Stampeders in 2020 and re-upped with him for 2021. Jackson was superb with the Stamps in 2018, rushing for 924 yards on 160 carries in 13 games. Injuries derailed him in 2019, limiting the playmaking back to just seven games and 58 carries.

The Ticats are high on Thomas-Erlington, a former eighth-round pick who worked his way up the depth chart, but the addition of Jackson means it could be either player’s job. I think both will be used extensively in both the run and pass game, so it might not matter who ultimately ends up the starter.

Canadian receiver

Contenders: David Ungerer III, Tyler Ternowski, Marcus Davis

With the loss of Mike Jones (WHO? MIKE JONES!) to the Edmonton Elks and the release of former first-rounder Brian Jones, the Ticats are very light at Canadian receiver with just three players on the roster to fill the likely fifth starting receiver spot.

Ungerer has the most experience of the group, but to say it is not a lot would be an understatement, appearing in 10 games in 2019 and catching two passes for 44 yards. Ternowksi is a rookie, having been drafted in the 2020 CFL Draft, and Davis is a 2018 draftee who spent the entire 2019 season on the team’s practice roster. With so little experience it makes it hard to predict where the Ticats might go.

Also, throwing a monkey wrench in things is the wildcard that is Jake Burt. The 2021 first overall pick is a tight end, not a position you typically see deployed in the CFL, but you don’t select a player with the top pick without the intention of using him a lot.

The Ticats also have 2019 second-round pick Nikola Kalinic, who is actually the most experienced Canadian pass catcher on the roster. Hamilton used him sparingly, but effectively in 2019 and with Burt in tow perhaps Kalinic’s role will be expanded as well if the Ticats decide to go with more tight end sets.

Left tackle

Contenders: Trevon Tate, Justice Powers, Scottie Dill

Hamilton has one of the most experienced offensive lines in the CFL, with perennial all-stars Brandon Revenberg and Chris Van Zeyl, along with rising youngster Darius Ciraco and local favourite Mike Filer filling in four of the spots along the line. It’s the fifth spot, and maybe the most important spot, where the Ticats have a big question mark: left tackle.

Ryker Mathews manned that spot exceptionally well in 2019, but he left for B.C. in 2020 leaving a giant hole where he used to occupy. Instead of going the veteran route via free agency, the Ticats have opted to look for his replacement in house. Tate is likely the first player who will get a chance to fill Mathews’ spot. He spent most of the 2019 season with the Ticats, appearing in one game.

If Tate doesn’t work out, a pair of American rookies in Powers — a member of the all-name team without a doubt — and Dill being the next man up. Both men have the size to play the position, with Powers standing six-foot-three, and 295 pounds and Dill checking in at a gargantuan six-foot-seven and 295 pounds.

SAM linebacker

Contenders: Tyrice Beverette, Ciante Evans (maybe), a bunch of unknowns

There are certain questions that seem to always hang around the Ticats and one of those perpetually being asked is who will play SAM linebacker. Rico Murray played it well in 2019, but he retired back in the winter and the Ticats will enter 2021 without anyone with any real experience at one of the Canadian game’s trickiest positions to play.

One player who will likely get first crack to take Murray’s former position is Beverette. He played in 13 games for the Ticats in his rookie year in 2019, starting the final regular season game when the Ticats sat a number of starters. He didn’t start at SAM however, he started at WILL. But his six-foot, 203-pound frame is almost the perfect one to play SAM.

Key free agent acquisition Evans might also be a candidate, although I think he is more suited to replace the departed Richard Leonard as the Ticats’ field-side halfback. Patrick Levels, who the team signed in 2020, would have been the ideal replacement, but he opted to return to the Alouettes in 2021.

The Ticats do have a number of American rookie defensive backs and linebackers — 15 by my count — and one of them could be tapped to be the team’s SAM in 2021. This is one that will be very interesting to follow.

Boundary corner

Contenders: Jumal Rolle, Maurice Carnell IV, a bunch of unknowns

Of all the retirements and opt-outs across the league, one of the biggest was the retirement of two-time CFL all-star and three-time East Division all-star Delvin Breaux. Breaux was, for most people’s money, the best cover corner in the CFL, locking down receivers so deftly that teams rarely bothered trying to throw his way. His loss cannot be understated and is a big blow to a Ticats secondary that is otherwise fairly solid.

Rolle, who has started 27 games over his two CFL seasons, will be the likely replacement for Breaux. Despite starting just 11 games in 2019, Rolle led the team in interceptions with five and was named one of the league’s top performers for Week 7. He has spent the majority of his CFL career as the field-side corner, but with Frankie Williams manning that position, expect Rolle to takeover for Breaux.

But if Rolle isn’t the guy, the Ticats have a plethora of options as the team will bring 16 other American defensive backs to camp. Another name to keep tabs on is Maurice Carnell IV. He spent most of the 2019 season on the team’s practice roster, and while his size isn’t ideal to play the physical boundary corner spot — he is probably more suited for the field-side halfback spot — his familiarity with the defence and his underrated physicality could see him in the mix for a larger role in 2021.

Placekicker, punter, kickoff specialist

Contenders: Matthew White, Gabriel Ferraro, Tyler Bertolet, Michael Domagala, Joel Whitford

It doesn’t look like Justin Medlock or Lirim Hajrullahu are walking through the door, so the Ticats will start another season with a giant question mark at the kicking positions.

The most experienced player is Ferraro, who played five games with Saskatchewan in 2019. He made seven-of-nine field goals and 11-of-12 extra points filling in for Brett Lauther. The other two placekicking options, White and Bertolet, have no CFL experience.

Meanwhile, Domagala previously attended training camp with the Tiger-Cats in 2019 and brings a national designation as an option.

Normally you would see teams lean more heavily towards a Canadian kicker to perform all the duties, but the arrival of the Global player initiative throws a kink into the system. As we saw with the 2021 Global Draft, a lot of teams opted to select kickers and punters, and the Ticats were no exception.

Two of their draft picks were either a kicker or a punter, with the punter being Australian Joel Whitford. Whitford played collegiately at the University of Washington, so if the Ticats decide to go with a two-man kick combination, we could see the team pair Whitford up with one of the young American players.

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.