The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will open training camp on Sunday morning at Ron Joyce Stadium on the campus of McMaster University looking much different than they did a year ago.
Following last year’s disappointing 8-10 season, changes were inevitable. These changes started right after Hamilton’s season ended with an East Semi-Final loss to the Montreal Alouettes when they traded for the rights to superstar quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. Mitchell’s inevitable signing led the team to part ways with last year’s starter, Dane Evans, trading him to the B.C. Lions in February.
The team also parted ways with a number of veterans that helped the team reach back-to-back Grey Cups in 2019 and 2021, most recently releasing fan favourite receiver Bralon Addison. A number of new players where added to replace them, including running back James Butler, receiver Duke Williams, offensive lineman Joel Figueroa, defensive linemen Kwaku Boateng and Ja’Gared Davis, and linebacker Jameer Thurman.
It was a full-scale overhaul done with one goal in mind: to be on the field when Hamilton plays host to the Grey Cup in November.
Despite all their moves, there are still some lingering questions the team will have to answer over the course of training camp. Below are five spots worth keeping an eye on over the next few weeks as we get ready to start the 2023 regular season.
Having lost three-fifths of last year’s starting unit to free agency — Jumal Rolle and Ciante Evans left for the Montreal Alouettes, while Cariel Brooks was released and signed with the Ottawa Redblacks — and adding only one veteran in free agency in Javien Elliott from Calgary, the Ticats will open training camp looking to fill two spots in the secondary, most likely at boundary corner and field-side corner.
At last count, the Tabbies have 15 first or second-year defensive backs on the roster, which means one or two relative unknowns will likely be in the starting lineup when the season opens in less than a month.
Among the players to keep an eye on are Will Sunderland and Tony Collier. Both were with the team for a short time last year and their familiarity with the playbook, as limited as it may be, should give them a leg up early on.
Lawrence Woods could also be used in the Frankie Williams role from a few years ago, where he starts at field-side corner while also serving as the primary return man. Woods played sparingly on defence last season but has a head start on the other newcomers, so it will be interesting to see if the newly minted No. 8 finds himself pulling double duty.
With Wednesday’s somewhat surprising release of Bralon Addison, the Ticats appear to only have three of their five receiver positions locked in. Tim White and Duke Williams will start alongside at least one Canadian but outside of that it is anyone’s guess who the other two starters will be.
The Tiger-Cats have two ways they could go here: starting two additional Americans or one American and one Canadian.
Last year, Hamilton flirted with the idea of starting two Canadian receivers but went away from it when Tyler Ternowski and Lemar Durant were injured in the first few days of camp. The Ticats loaded up on Canadian receivers this off-season, signing Llevi Noel, Chris Osei-Kusi, and Richie Sindani while still having Ternowski and Kiondre Smith in the fold. If the Tabbies want to go with two Canadian receivers, they have the horses to do it.
If the club elects not to take that route, Anthony Johnson is likely the front-runner for one starting spot with Terry Godwin II and Papi White not far behind in the pecking order. All three played sparingly last season with Johnson showing the most potential of the group.
With that said, the Ticats have brought in nearly a dozen newcomers at receiver and given the team’s recent history of unearthing hidden gems, do not be shocked if one of the rookies finds themselves in a starting role come the regular season.
To say the Ticats have a spoil of riches along the defensive line would be an understatement. The team rolls two-deep at each spot but nowhere will the starting battles be more interesting than at defensive end.
It feels safe to pencil Ja’Gared Davis into one spot but there are plenty of options for who will line up on the opposite side. Kwaku Boateng a free agent acquisition from Ottawa, and Bennett are strong Canadian options. The concern with Boateng is he’s coming off a season-ending injury he suffered last May and might not be back at full strength, giving Bennett the chance to make the spot his own.
The team could also go American with Malik Carney being the one most likely to earn the spot. Carney re-signed with the team over the winter and should be in line for a larger role this year.
How the Tiger-Cats decide to navigate the ratio will likely be a factor here. If they go with four American receivers, Boateng or Bennett should start. If the team puts two Canadian receivers on the field, Carney could get his shot.
While it seems crazy to think, could the Ticats be planning to start someone other than Simoni Lawrence at weak-side linebacker?
Head coach Orlondo Steinauer stopped short of guaranteeing the future Wall of Honour inductee a starting spot in 2023 and given Lawrence’s recent injury troubles and the presence of up-and-coming linebacker Kyle Wilson, it might not be crazy to think that the most popular player in recent franchise history might not be a starter in 2023.
With the recent signing of 2022 Global Draft second-round pick Bailey Flint, incumbent punter Blake Hayes has some real competition on his hands. Hayes was the Tiger-Cats’ second pick in that same draft but came up to the team last year and played in one game.
There was obviously a reason the team selected Flint first and that likely means he has a leg up (no pun intended) when the battle gets underway on Sunday.