Six newcomers who have stood out at Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ training camp

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym/RFB Sport Photography

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have a veteran-heavy roster heading into the 2023 season but there have still been a few newcomers who’ve stood out while on their mission to make the final roster. Here are six such players who have started to make a name for themselves over the first week-plus of training camp.

Justin McGriff, receiver

Tim White and Duke Williams are seemingly locked into starting spots, while last year’s camp standout, Anthony Johnson, could be ready to take the next step in year two. Hamilton has also deployed two Canadians in the receiving corps since day one of camp, further limiting the available room for first-year receivers to step up.

With that said, one player who’s made the most of his opportunity is Justin McGriff. The six-foot-six, 215-pound pass catcher only signed with the team back on May 8 but he has quickly found himself in a featured role at wide receiver.

“He’s done a great job outside and I think it’s more of a natural transition,” Tiger-Cats head coach Orlando Steinauer told the Hamilton media. “He’s made some big catches.”

The Utah State University product had a rough first couple of sessions but has found his groove as the days have gone on. He struggled with catching the ball in traffic during team scrimmage drills but put that behind him on Tuesday, catching a pair of beautifully thrown deep balls from Bo Levi Mitchell that both went for long touchdowns.

The Tampa, Fla. native has been running with the top group for the last few days as Johnson eases his way back onto the field and is someone fans should keep an eye on during Hamilton’s preseason game on Saturday against the Toronto Argonauts.

Omar Bayless, receiver

McGriff isn’t the only new pass catcher to make an impact as fellow newcomer Omar Bayless has also looked impressive. The things that has stood out most with Bayless is his hands. He simply doesn’t drop anything, whether in one-on-ones, seven-on-sevens or full-team. If the ball is thrown anywhere near the 25-year-old from Laurel, Miss., he catches it.

While the six-foot-one, 210-pound Arkansas State University product doesn’t possess the physical gifts that McGriff does, his ability to find the open space and turn a five-yard catch into a 12-yard gain has been noticeable.

Tayon Fleet-Davis, running back

James Butler will be the focal point of the rushing attack in 2023 but with Sean Thomas Erlington once again being felled by injury, the opportunity to make the roster became possible for another ball-carrier.

Of the three remaining backs, Fleet-Davis has impressed the most. The 24-year-old has spent most of the last week running with the second unit and has shown good vision and solid agility.

The only thing that stands in his way of making the team is his passport. It’s rare for CFL teams to carry two American running backs on their game-day roster but the Oxon Hill, Md. native could easily find himself in the Wes Hills role from a season ago, playing an integral part should the team’s top back suffer an injury.

Will Sunderland, defensive back

One of the few position battles in Ticats’ camp is the one to find a new starting boundary cornerback as last year’s starter, Jumal Rolle, signed with the Montreal Alouettes in free agency in February before announcing his retirement earlier this week.

When camp began, the first man up was Will Sunderland, a native of Midwest City, Okla. who signed the Tabbies late last season after taking part in training camp with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Sunderland spent the majority of his time with the Ticats on the practice roster but did get his chance to show what he could do in the team’s regular season finale against the Ottawa Redblacks.

The 26-year-old wasn’t asked to do much in that contest, registering just a single defensive tackle, but he showed enough that the team brought him back for a second season.

Unfortunately for Sunderland, he’s missed time over the first two weeks of camp for an undisclosed issue, which has given chances to other players on the roster.

Kenneth George Jr., defensive back

The most prominent cover man to step up in Sunderland’s absence has been Kenneth George Jr., a former standout at the University of Tennessee.

The 25-year-old native of Lafayette, La. has looked great in one-on-ones as well as during team scrimmages. On Tuesday, the six-foot, 194-pound defender hauled in a tough interception and has also been involved in numerous pass breakups. He has a nose for the football and a tenacity not often seen out of first-year CFL players.

Cortez Davis, defensive back

Another rookie American defensive back who has been solid since camp opened is Cortez Davis. The 26-year-old has spent most of his time with the second-team unit at boundary halfback and has made a number of interceptions and always seems to be around the ball.

With free agent pickup Javien Elliott getting all the first-team reps at Cariel Brooks’ old spot, Davis may need to make his hay on special teams before getting a chance for meaningful reps in the secondary.

Other notes

A number of second-year players seem far more comfortable than they did a year ago, including defensive back Lawrence Woods, who looks to be assuming the old Frankie Williams role as the team’s field-side cornerback and primary return man, linebacker Vosean Joseph, and Canadian receiver Kiondre Smith.

The 23-year-old out of the University of Guelph has been moved around in the offence, playing just as much out of the slot as he has the field-side receiver spot he played the majority of his snaps from last year and it wouldn’t surprise me if he becomes one of the league’s premier Canadian pass catchers in 2023.

Injury-wise, Ja’Gared Davis has not been a participant in camp since the day following his late arrival. Canadian receiver Tyler Ternowski has also been held out of practice the last couple of days, while Chris Van Zeyl has not practiced at all. Fellow Canadian offensive tackle Kyle Saxelid has been dealing with an injury since late last week and the injuries to those two is likely part of the reason Alex Fontana was brought back earlier this week.

Bo Levi Mitchell has looked fantastic. The two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player hasn’t hesitated to throw the deep ball and his throws have had plenty of velocity while his touch on corner routes has been exceptional. Any concerns regarding his health should be dismissed.

James Butler’s play is arguably the best from a Ticats running back in training camp since C.J. Gable’s rookie year. If Butler is used to his full potential, Hamilton should have their first 1,000-yard back since DeAndra’ Cobb rushed for 1,173 yards in 2010.

Finally, veteran defensive tackle Ted Laurent is noticeably slimmer and looks to be in the best shape of his career. With Dylan Wynn still out after suffering an injury late last year, the team could be more reliant on Laurent than they did a year ago and it looks like No. 97 is ready for the extra responsibility.

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.