Five training camp questions for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats

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The two-time defending East Division champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats face a handful of questions in training camp. The good news for Ticats fans is the team has done a good job of answering most of their major questions over the winter.

We know that Dane Evans is the starting quarterback after the former backup signed a lucrative two-year contract extension with the team in January. That decision led to Jeremiah Masoli leaving Hamilton and signing with the Ottawa Redblacks in free agency.

Despite rumours of a possible move back to the American college ranks to become the defensive coordinator at the University of Washington, Orlondo Steinauer is back as head coach and added the title of president of football operations to his résumé.

Decisions were made regarding veteran players, either by the team or the athletes themselves. The club parted ways with future Hall of Fame receiver Brandon Banks, who eventually signed with the Toronto Argonauts. He joined one of his former teammates, defensive lineman Ja’Gared Davis, who also traded in black and gold for double blue during free agency.

Hamilton also watched as receiver Jaelon Acklin and centre Darius Ciraco joined Masoli in Ottawa.

While those moves helped clarify some things, they also created some questions of their own — questions that will need to be answered over the next few weeks before the Ticats kick-off their 2022 season in Saskatchewan against the Roughriders on June 11.

Who are their seven Canadian starters?

This is the biggest question the team will need to answer because how the Tabbies deploy their required seven Canadian starters will help inform the rest of their roster questions.

The Cats have, by my count, the ability to start 12 Canadians if they so choose.

On defence, they could start Ted Laurent and Mason Bennett along the defensive line as well as Stavros Katsantonis and Tunde Adeleke in the secondary.

Offensively, Hamilton could start an all-Canadian offensive line with Kyle Saxelid and Chris Van Zeyl at the two tackle spots, Brandon Revenberg and Coulter Woodmansey at the two guard spots, and Jesse Gibbon or Alex Fontana at centre.

They also have the option to start two Canadians in the receiving corps in newcomer Lemar Durant and the returning David Ungerer III, as well as one at running back, be it Sean Thomas-Erlington or 2020 third-round pick Maleek Irons, both of whom re-signed with the team in the winter.

Obviously, this will not happen. No team, regardless of how talented their National depth is, would start 12 Canadians. However, the very fact that they could gives you an idea of just how loaded the Ticats are from a Canadian perspective.

So what is the likely starting ratio? That is a little harder to figure out. We know Revenberg and Van Zeyl are locks, as is Adeleke. Outside of that, it is hard to tell. Saxelid is as close to a lock as possible for one of the starting offensive line positions because you don’t trade for a player like him without a plan to put him into your starting lineup. The same is true for Durant, who was once viewed as a star in B.C.

That leaves us with just two more starting spots up for grabs. With the addition of Micah Johnson, I think Ted Laurent becomes more of a rotational player instead of being Dylan Wynn’s primary battery mate on the interior of the defensive line.

I think Ungerer is better used for depth than as a starter, and I don’t think either Thomas-Erlington or Irons will beat out Don Jackson, who signed a two-year extension with the team in January, for the starting tailback spot if the former Stampeder is healthy.

That narrows it down to the Ticats either going five along the offensive line or Mason Bennett taking over for Ja’Gared Davis as the defensive end opposite veteran American Julian Howsare.

It will be interesting to see how the team lines up during training camp because the sooner we get the answer to how they will play their Canadians, the sooner we will be able to answer the rest of the roster questions.

Who starts at left tackle?

This one gets answered by the ratio, as outlined above, because if the Ticats decide to go with five Canadians along the line, then the starting left tackle will be the recently acquired Kyle Saxelid.

However, if the Cats decide that they would be better suited with Saxelid at guard and an American at left tackle, the options open up.

Hamilton currently has four American offensive linemen on their roster: Travis Vornkahl, De’Ondre Wesley, Tyler Johnson and Korren Kirven. Vornkahl was with the team last year and started three games at left tackle, including the East Semi-Final. The other three were all signed this off-season.

Wesley is the most intriguing of the bunch for me. At six-foot-seven and 330 pounds, the Brigham Young product is a mountain of a man. He has bounced around the NFL since 2015 and played for the DC Defenders of the XFL in 2020. He was on the Edmonton Elks’ practice roster last season, so he has some familiarity with the CFL game. He signed with the Ticats in April.

Kirvin, whom the team signed on May 5, played collegiately at the University of Alabama where he was a member of the school’s 2016 national championship team. Johnson spent his senior season at the University of Louisiana-Monroe after transferring from Tulane University and was signed by the team in March. Both players have yet to make their way to training camp and have been placed on the suspended list.

If the Tabbies decide they want an American to play left tackle, they certainly have a plethora of options from which to choose.

Who replaces Ja’Gared Davis?

This is another area where what Hamilton decides to do ratio-wise will dictate who starts. If they go Canadian, the answer is Mason Bennett. If they don’t, the answer is much trickier.

The Ticats have four American defensive ends on their roster, not including Julian Howsare, who is a virtual lock to start at the other defensive end spot. They include holdovers Ronheen Bingham, who has been with the Ticats since 2020 but has yet to see the field, and Malik Carney, who played in four regular-season games and two playoff games last year, as well as a pair of newcomers in Justus Reed and Tre’ Crawford.

Reed, who signed with the Ticats in February, played college football at the University of Florida before first transferring to Youngstown State University and then moving one final time to Virginia Tech. Over 41 career college games, Reed amassed 95 total tackles, 34 tackles for loss, 25 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and three pass breakups. Those sack numbers are the ones that really open your eyes.

Crawford, who the team signed in March, spent time in the NFL with the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons after going unselected in the 2019 NFL Draft. The six-foot-three, 235-pound native of Houston, Texas played collegiately at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he registered 47 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks and two fumble recoveries in 22 games for the Blazers.

We see players come out of nowhere so often in the CFL that we sometimes erroneously dismiss newcomers too quickly, and I don’t want to be guilty of doing that here.

Seeing 25 sacks in just 41 games is hard to ignore, especially for a team that just lost one of the league’s premier pass rushers to a division rival. I am not saying that Reed will start for the Ticats from day one, but he is definitely a guy I will be keeping my eye on over the next few weeks and I won’t be surprised if he somehow finds himself in the mix.

Will they finally find a decent kicker?

One year I really hope I get to do one of these training camp primer pieces and not have to talk about the kickers.

This year is not that year.

The Ticats once again enter a season with a massive question mark surrounding their kicking game. After last year went horribly wrong in that area — so much so that it probably cost the team a chance at hosting the East Final — the Tabbies need to get this right once and for all.

All things considered, Hamilton has had good kicking luck over the last seven or eight years. They got stellar play out of Justin Medlock for several seasons. Brett Maher had such a good year in 2016 that he has since played 37 games in the NFL and Lirim Hajrullahu has spent the last two years trying to stick with an NFL team after two excellent seasons with the club. They even looked poised to give Sergio Castillo a forever home until a horrible knee injury suffered in 2017 ended his tenure with the team.

But Hamilton’s luck ran out last year.

Struggling kicker after struggling kicker made the Ticats’ third phase an experience nobody wanted to watch. Whether it was Taylor Bertolet or Michael Domagala, the team’s field goal kicking just wasn’t consistent enough in 2021. Domagala returns for camp in 2022, but the team has added a pair of legs to compete with him.

The first is fellow Canadian Dante Brown. The Mississauga, Ontario native was drafted by Edmonton in the fifth round of the 2020 CFL Draft and spent all of last season on the Elks’ practice roster. The five-foot-11, 200-pound product of Fort Hays State University connected on nearly 84 percent of his field goals in college and was the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association special teams player of the year in 2018 and 2019. He was signed by the team in January.

The other kicking candidate is Global player Tadhg Leader. The Galway, Ireland native signed with the team in February and has amassed quite the social media following since then, with Ticats fans embracing the six-foot-two, 205-pound Irishman as one of their own. Leader does not have a lot of pro football experience, with his only action coming in The Spring League in 2021 where he connected on four-of-six field goal attempts as a member of the Aviators.

What he lacks in kicking experience he makes up for in rugby experience. Leader played for three teams in Major League Rugby, two teams in leagues overseas and has represented both Ireland and the United States internationally. If Leader doesn’t stick as the team’s placekicker, he might be able to push incumbent Joel Whitford, a fellow Global player, for the Ticats’ punting job.

Out of these options, Brown is the one that intrigues me most. Maybe there is something in Leader, but converting from rugby to football isn’t always easy. If the Ticats are determined to use one of their Global spots on a kicker, then Leader gets the edge. Otherwise, I think the competition is down to the two Canadians and giving the duties back to Domagala might be a tough sell to the fans.

Brown has a good collegiate résumé and is a former fifth-round pick in the CFL Draft, so he is the guy I would give the slight advantage to win this kicking competition.

Who is the odd-man-out in the secondary?

Unlike the other positions on this list, the questions surrounding the secondary are less about who will play where and more about how the Tabbies can get everyone on the field.

Hamilton’s secondary is ridiculously loaded and either someone is coming off the bench or someone isn’t making it out of training camp.

The team brought back four-fifths of their starting secondary from a year ago while repatriating Richard Leonard and adding Grey Cup champion Alden Darby to the equation.

That’s not to mention playoff breakout sensation Stavros Katsantonis or strong-side linebacker Kameron Kelly, who had two interceptions in the Grey Cup and probably would have been the title game’s MVP had the Ticats held on to win. Both will need to be considered for major roles on the defence, even if they don’t make the starting lineup.

Hamilton has no questions in the secondary that aren’t good ones, but it does make one wonder just how they plan to get everyone playing time. Having a lot of talent is a good problem to have, but it is a problem nonetheless.

It will be interesting to see how the Ticats lineup in the secondary during the pre-season and if that holds up into the regular season.

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.