The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will kick off their preseason schedule Saturday night at Tim Hortons Field against the Montreal Alouettes and while preseason games are not known for their high quality of play, that does not mean these games lack intrigue.
Here are five Ticats questions that could be answered during Saturday night’s game.
What will we see out of Jake Burt?
After being selected first overall in the 2021 CFL Draft, Ticats fans were excited to see what tight end Jake Burt could bring to the team. Tight end is not a position you typically see in the Canadian Football League, but you don’t draft someone with the top pick without having a plan to use him.
Unfortunately for Ticats fans, Burt missed the entire 2021 season with a quad injury and Saturday’s contest against the Als will be the first time anyone will have had a chance to see the Boston College product in action since his days with the Eagles.
Expectations are high for Burt due to his draft position, but I don’t expect too much, too soon from the second-year player. Burt is basically taking over the role vacated by Nikola Kalinic, who signed a deal with the Indianapolis Colts of the National Football League this past winter. Kalinic’s role was sparse in the Ticats’ offence — he caught just 23 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns in 30 games for the black and gold — but I think once Burt gets comfortable we could see him used more frequently than Kalinic was in the team’s passing attack.
Standing six-foot-three and weighing 230 pounds, Burt could be a matchup nightmare, especially in the red zone. While we know the Ticats won’t show all their plays on Saturday I am curious to see if Burt gets a lot of playing time when the Ticats are inside the 10-yard line. Kalinic may have made his name primarily on special teams, but I think Burt will be given more field time on offence than Kalinic ever was.
Who is No. 3?
The quarterback pecking order in Hamilton is set. Dane Evans is the unquestioned starter for the first time in his professional career and reliable veteran Matthew Shiltz, who the Tabbies signed in the winter after he was released by the Montreal Alouettes, is firmly entrenched as the team’s No. 2 signal-caller.
That leaves one quarterbacking spot open with a pair of newcomers vying for that position. So let’s introduce you to quarterbacks Jalen Morton and Jamie Newman.
Morton was signed by the Ticats last September and spent most of the season on the practice roster. He re-signed with the team in January.
The six-foot-three, 237-pound native of Arlington, Texas played 34 games with 23 starts for Prairie View A&M University between 2015 and 2019, completing 372-of-695 passes (53.5 percent) for 5,237 yards, 42 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. Morton also added 1,579 rushing yards on 270 carries with 22 rushing touchdowns, as well as making four receptions for 29 yards and one receiving touchdown during his career with the Panthers.
Newman, who signed with the Ticats in February, played collegiately at Wake Forest University where he completed 306-of-506 passes (60.5 percent) for 3,959 yards with 35 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, while also adding 245 carries for 826 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.
Newman left Wake Forest in 2020 to play at the University of Georgia but opted out of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both players showed in college that they can be dual threats, although neither was particularly accurate over their collegiate careers. Newman has the better pedigree but Morton has more familiarity with the Ticats system after spending last year with the team.
The second half of preseason games is where guys like Morton and Newman will see the majority of their playing time, which gives Ticats fans a reason to stay engaged after the starters have been pulled. Lest we forget that at one time Dane Evans was an unknown quarterback who got some playing time in the second half of a couple of preseason games, so you never know when you might be looking at a future star.
The Ticats have listed Morton third and Newman fourth on the team’s depth chart for Saturday’s game, potentially tipping their hand at who currently has the leg up in the battle for the team’s final quarterback spot.
Who will make a name for themselves?
While training camp sessions are where new players get the most chances to stand out, playing well in the preseason can also be where players set themselves apart from the pack.
The Tiger-Cats, despite being a veteran-laden team, have a few new players who fans might want to pay some attention to on Saturday night.
We will start with the receiver crops where a pair of Americans and one young Canadian have stood out to me whenever I have been at McMaster University watching the team practice.
Those three are Americans Anthony Johnson and Andrew Boston, and Canadian Kiondre Smith.
Johnson comes to the Ticats after a prolific career at the University at Buffalo where he caught 133 passes for 2,367 yards and 25 touchdowns, earning back-to-back First Team All-Mid Atlantic Conference honours in 2017 and 2018.
Boston joined the Ticats after four years at Eastern Washington University where he made 188 receptions for 2,621 yards and 20 receiving touchdowns for the Eagles
Smith was selected by the Tabbies in the fourth round, 37th overall, in the 2022 CFL Draft earlier this month. Smith played his university football at the University of Guelph and caught 50 passes for 612 yards and five touchdowns while also contributing in the return game, returning 45 kickoffs for 822 yards and 112 punts for 1,065 yards and one touchdown.
All three showed well during training camp, and Johnson will get a big opportunity as he is listed as one of the team’s five starting receivers for Saturday night’s game.
Another player worth watching is running back Wes Hills, who played one game last year for the Ticats and prior to that, played one game in the NFL with the Detroit Lions. Hills had just 10 carries for 21 yards in his lone NFL game but he did score two touchdowns, which tells me he has a nose for the end zone.
Hills scored 14 total touchdowns and rushed for 1,849 yards during his college career at the University of Delaware and while he won’t supplant Don Jackson as the team’s starter, he could make life difficult for decision-makers if he plays well enough on Saturday.
The last player I will have my eye on tomorrow night is defensive back Reggie Cole. The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor product has the near-impossible task of cracking the Ticats’ starting secondary, but he has shown me enough during training camp that I think keeping him around could be worthwhile.
I have been impressed with what I have seen from him during one-on-one drills against the receivers and if he can provide any value on special teams, he is a player the team would do well to keep around.
Will a left tackle distinguish themselves?
With the current roster construction, who plays left tackle boils down to two players: Americans Travis Vornkahl and De’Ondre Wesley.
Vornkahl has taken the vast majority of first-team reps at left tackle during training camp and has the experience edge over Wesley after starting three games for the Ticats a year ago, including starting at left tackle in the team’s East Semi-Final victory over the Montreal Alouettes. But there is just something intriguing about Wesley’s size, as it is not every day that you see a six-foot-seven and 330-pounder on a CFL roster.
While I suspect Vornkahl will be the starter when the regular season begins, I am not going to count out the human mountain that is De’Ondre Wesley just yet.
Will the team finally find their kicker?
The Ticats have already shown us that they weren’t completely happy with their kicking game when the team released Canadian Dante Brown and signed Texas A&M University’s Seth Small earlier this week.
Small now joins a group of kickers that features the returning Michael Domagala and Global rookie Tadhg Leader, neither of whom have impressed during camp (although Leader, in my opinion, should be in the running as the team’s punter).
Small likely has the leg up, no pun intended, given his college résumé, but last time the Tabbies went with a heralded Texas A&M kicker, it did not go all that well.
Everyone remembers the Taylor Bertolet disaster from a year ago, right? Bertolet was so inconsistent last season that the team turned to Domagala, who wasn’t much better.
The team bringing Domagala back for another year means they must see something in him that I don’t. While I don’t think Saturday’s game will give us a definitive answer as to who the Ticats’ kickers will be when the team opens the regular season, a bad outing by any of the three will likely tip the scales in favour of one of the others.
As silly as this may sound, this might be the battle to watch on Saturday night.