Five questions for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to answer in their preseason finale against the Toronto Argonauts

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym

Heading into last week’s preseason game against the Montreal Alouettes, I outlined five questions I was hoping the Hamilton Tiger-Cats would be able to at least partially answer.

While we left that game with fewer answers than I had hoped — the only real answer we got was who the starting left tackle is likely to be — it was still a fun exercise and one we will repeat for this Friday’s preseason finale in Guelph against the Toronto Argonauts.

How will the running back conundrum get answered?

The Ticats have a clear-cut No. 1 ball carrier in the electric Don Jackson but it is the battle behind him that should be the focus of fans in Friday’s contest with the Argos.

Sean Thomas-Erlington feels like a safe bet to make the roster, but the team is very high on American Wes Hills. Hills was with the team last year but spent most of his time on the practice roster and injury list.

Going into training camp you would have thought that Hills was in tough to make the roster given the presence of Thomas-Erlington and fellow Canadian Maleek Irons, both of whom were re-signed by the team this winter. At times, however, Hills has looked like the best back on the team whose surname name isn’t Jackson.

The former Detroit Lion had the most carries of any ball carrier last Saturday against the Als, and he has continued to show well during training camp. Hills has his limitations, being that he is more of a straight-line runner and doesn’t break tackles with anywhere near the frequency of other backs, but he is a bulldozer who could come in handy down by the goal line.

Having two American tailbacks on the game-day roster is almost impossible given the CFL’s roster rules, but with how good Hills has looked since camp opened, I have a feeling the Ticats will do whatever they can to keep him around.

It wasn’t just Hills’ stellar camp that has me thinking he’d make the team. I wasn’t impressed with what I’ve seen from Maleek Irons over the last two weeks and felt the former Ohio University star could be the odd man out.

That changed this week, with Irons having easily his two best days of camp during both Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s sessions. The Abbotsford, B.C. native was hitting the holes hard and making guys miss during team drills both days.

With Irons showing why the team invested a third-round pick in him back in 2019, the coaching staff is going to have a much harder decision to make after Friday’s game than I initially thought.

Which American rookies will stay?

Every year players emerge from camps across the CFL to supplant established veterans and take their jobs. While the Tiger-Cats have a veteran-laden team with few holes to fill, there are still more than a few rookies who have a chance to find their way onto the roster with a good showing on Friday night.

One player I talked up last week — and have been talking up everywhere since — is receiver Anthony Johnson. He got the start against Montreal as the field receiver and caught two passes, including a very nice catch-and-run in the first quarter.

Johnson did not look out of place amongst a group of more established players and while the former University at Buffalo star is listed second on the Ticats’ depth chart at boundary receiver for Friday night’s game, I expect him to find his way onto the team when final cuts are made this weekend.

Johnson isn’t the only American receiver who has impressed, as both Emmanuel Butler and Andrew Boston have made some nice plays during camp when their numbers have been called. Butler did a lot of work with the starting offence on Tuesday and Wednesday while Boston made an incredible catch in tight coverage during team drills on Wednesday. Both should see a lot of action against the Argos, especially with former all-star receiver Bralon Addison missing the game after suffering an injury during practice on Tuesday.

Defensive back Lawrence Woods is someone who has put a lot of good plays on tape, both on defence and special teams. Woods tied for the team lead with five tackles against Montreal and also added one kickoff return for 31 yards and one punt return for 14 yards, both the longest returns of the night for the Black and Gold.

The Truman State University product has also shown well during both team and one-on-one drills during training camp. Being multiple and adding value in different areas is how young Americans make CFL teams. Lawrence Woods is doing everything he can to make sure he stays in Hamilton after Friday night.

What Canadian rookies will stay?

This question picked up some added importance when three Canadian players — receivers Lemar Durant and Tyler Ternowski, and offensive lineman Coulter Woodmansey — were all put on the six-game injury list earlier this week.

While the severity of each player’s injury is guarded more closely than a country’s nuclear codes, I can say that it appears Durant has a wrist or hand injury of some sort, while Ternowski looks to have a shoulder issue and Woodmansey seems to be dealing with a left knee problem. How long any of the three will be out is unknown, but their absence has opened the door for some young players to get some time.

Kiondre Smith is someone I have been banging the drum about since draft day last month. The son of former 12-year CFL veteran Adrion “Pee Wee” Smith, he has shown flashes of being a solid contributor at the professional level. Smith is fast, has good hands and can contribute on special teams. He reminds me a lot of Ternowski from a season ago and should have a roster spot after cutdown day.

Mohamed Diallo saw a lot of work during Wednesday’s practice session, after he officially signed with the Ticats earlier that day. Given the recent absence from practice of probable defensive line starter Mason Bennett — he has been in attendance but not doing any drills — the Ticats will need to figure out their ratio on defence before the regular season starts. I do not think Diallo will be in the mix to start but if he can show why he was so highly touted coming out of college, that will make Hamilton’s decision that much easier.

The Ticats have listed American Malik Carney as the starter in place of Bennett for Friday’s game, with the former first-round pick sliding down to the second team. Micah Johnson will also miss Friday’s contest at Alumni Stadium after sitting out the last two days of practice, which means Canadian veteran Ted Laurent will be the team’s starter against the Double Blue. While the ratio doesn’t matter in preseason games, what the Ticats are doing for Friday night’s matchup might give us an idea of how they plan to deploy their ratio when injuries inevitably become a factor later in the season.

Defensive lineman Anthony Federico, who was the team’s first pick in the 2022 CFL Draft, has shown a relentless motor and it would be truly shocking if he wasn’t on the roster going into Week 1.

Are any veterans in trouble of losing their spot?

We have already seen some surprising cuts, namely the Calgary Stampeders releasing veteran receiver Jordan Williams-Lambert on Sunday, but when it comes to the Ticats potential cuts, I do not expect there to be many familiar names.

Defensive back Desmond Lawrence hasn’t practiced at all during camp, but he is more than likely headed to the injury list instead of being released. Cariel Brooks has also been fairly inactive during most of camp and will likely head to the injured list as well.

Brooks’ injury might be a small blessing in disguise for the team, as it allows them to kick the can down the road when it comes to figuring out which players will start in the loaded secondary.

I am sure someone will get cut that will shock many in Tigertown but from what I have seen, it would surprise me if there was a release that rivalled the likes of the Williams-Lambert one.

Who survives the punting battle?

We end this week in a similar place as last week, except instead of us lamenting the state of the kicking game it is the punting game that will be the focus.

I do not think I have ever seen a punting performance worse than the Tiger-Cats against the Alouettes. Of the six punts the Ticats kicked, three of them resulted in either a no-yards or an illegal kick-out-of-bounds flag, while another was shanked so badly I felt a kid in the crowd could have done a better job.

Returning Global punter Joel Whitford had three punts and only one of them could be considered a good punt — though that would require us to really stretch the definition of the word good. The other two balls the Aussie punted produced no-yards flags.

Former University of Illinois standout Blake Hayes wasn’t any better. He had two punts on Saturday, with one garnering an illegal punt flag and the other travelling just 39 yards.

Global newcomer Tadhg Leader had just one kick at the can and his went a measly 33 yards. But hey, at least he didn’t get flagged for anything and he made up for it by kicking the game-winning field goal a few minutes later.

Hamilton did not bring any new punters into camp after last weekend’s debacle, so barring something truly surprising one of Whitford, Hayes or Leader will be punting for the Ticats when they kick off their regular season in Saskatchewan against the Roughriders on June 11.

As an aside, does anyone know what Jon Ryan is up to and if he’d have any interest in moving east? Just asking for a friend.

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.