The Hamilton Tiger-Cats fended off a late rally by the Toronto Argonauts to defeat their arch-rivals 27-22 in preseason action at Tim Hortons Field on Saturday afternoon. Below are my thoughts on the game.
It was only a brief cameo but Bo Levi Mitchell gave his new hometown fans something to tantalize over. In two series of action, Bo completed three of six passes for 63 yards and one gorgeous touchdown throw to Richie Sindani to open the scoring.
Hamilton’s new face of the franchise looked comfortable behind his offensive line and was confident in his throws. His ball placement — especially on the Sindani touchdown and an earlier pass to Tim White — was perfect. His numbers would have been even better had his opening throw to newcomer Justin McGriff not been dropped by the receiver.
No one is hanging any banners or making any grand proclamations after less than a quarter of football, but what Bo gave the home crowd was enough of a taste to have them salivating over the thought of a full meal in June.
Returning kicks for touchdowns against the double blue in the preseason seems to be a good way to give yourself a leg up in any sort of roster battle.
Last year, Lawrence Woods scored on a punt return to help cement his spot on the team and this year it looks like the speedy Lio’Undre Gallimore has done the same thing.
The five-foot-10, 171-pounder fielded a second-quarter punt, set up his blocks and then sprinted 84 yards to pay dirt. The rookie also caught all three of the passes thrown his way for 22 yards and finished the game with four punt returns for 94 yards and one kickoff return for 33 yards.
The Valdosta State product reminds me of a player who terrorized teams over a decade ago, former Tiger-Cats superstar receiver/returner Chris Williams. While probably not as fast and unlikely to contribute offensively in his rookie campaign as Williams did in 2011, Gallimore certainly showed enough to earn himself a spot on the roster as the team’s return man.
One player who was looking to showcase his talents on Saturday was camp standout receiver, Justin McGriff. Unfortunately for the six-foot-six pass catcher, he displayed both the good and bad aspects of his game.
On the opening offensive play, Bo Levi Mitchell floated a perfect ball into McGriff’s waiting arms only for the rookie to drop the pass. The play elicited groans from the crowd and was not a great first impression. Making routine catches has been his biggest bugaboo during the camp sessions I have attended and, unfortunately for him, that carried over into the game.
But it wouldn’t be a Justin McGriff performance if he didn’t follow up a bad drop with some great plays, finishing as the team’s second-leading receiver with 58 yards and catching a game-high four passes on a game-high seven targets.
The Utah State product flashed both his immense potential and what frustrates you about him in less than one half of playing time. His size and skills are certainly enough to give him a chance to become the team’s starting boundary receiver but he needs to start making those routine catches more routinely. If not, someone further down the depth chart with more reliable hands will relegate McGriff to the what-if pile.
Powell shows promise
While Mitchell’s time on the field was brief, the remainder of Saturday’s contest was quarterbacked by Hamilton’s latest QB signing, former Eastern Michigan University pivot Taylor Powell.
Powell finished an impressive 20-for-26 with 298 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and one fumble. One of his picks was a classic rookie mistake of throwing the ball where it should not have gone on a broken play, while the other was the youngster taking a chance on a 50-50 ball with his intended target being the six-foot-six McGriff.
Outside of the three turnovers, which were not ideal, Powell played a fairly efficient game. The young signal-caller mostly took what the Argos’ defence gave him and did not force too many throws outside of the aforementioned interceptions.
With last year’s No. 3 quarterback Jamie Newman taking a leave from the team, Powell has no competition for the Ticats’ third quarterback spot. He certainly showed more as a passer than Newman did a year ago and his performance might have been good enough to win the job even without the incumbent leaving camp last week.
Into the Woods
Last year, Lawrence Woods parlayed a great final preseason game against the Argos into a spot on the roster as the team’s primary return man. Against the same opponent a year later, Woods turned in another excellent performance but this time on the defensive side of the ball.
Woods has been slotted in as the team’s field cornerback since camp began earlier this month and he showed why against the Boatmen. The second-year player notched an interception off of QB Ben Holmes in the first quarter in what was picture-perfect coverage. Woods was step-for-step with the intended target and made a better play on the ball to come down with the pick.
Earlier, the speedster had a great pass breakup that unfortunately occurred on the same play where Argos’ star Canadian receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr appeared to be injured.
I had my concerns about whether Woods could transition into a starter’s role on defence after limited snaps on that side of the ball a year ago, but he has allayed many of those concerns during camp and again on Saturday.
With Gallimore’s scintillating return performance, it is possible Woods will not have to pull double duty during the season and can more focus on becoming a reliable defender on the field side.
While punters are people, no one likes to see a punt unless it wows you. Rookie Global punter Bailey Flint actually did that Saturday.
With the team opting to punt instead of attempting a long field goal, Flint boomed a high kick that bounced perfectly and rolled out of bounds at Toronto’s one-yard line. The kick brought back memories of former Argos’ punter Swayze Waters nailing two coffin-corner punts against the Ticats in the 2014 Labour Day Classic.
Flint is in a fierce punter battle with incumbent Blake Hayes and the first-year Aussie has outperformed his countryman during camp. Both were about equal on Saturday, so the battle is likely going to continue into the second preseason game against the Montreal Alouettes next Friday.
Fleet of feet
Hamilton’s running back position is not up for grabs. If James Butler is healthy, he is the team’s bell-cow and everyone else is battling for a practice roster spot.
Newcomer Tayon Fleet-Davis is making the case that if the Tabbies keep a second American back, it should be him. His rushing totals were nothing to write home about — six carries for a meagre 14 yards — but he did manage to make a dent in the passing game, hauling in three passes for 41 yards. The former Maryland Terrapin is a bigger back than Butler, but he is also shiftier and a more adept pass catcher than last year’s late-season starter Wes Hills.
Hills became a fan favourite after being inserted into the lineup but should the team need to rely on Fleet-Davis at any point this year, he would likely put up equal or better production than his predecessor.
Preseason games tend to see first-year players make some mistakes and we saw an all-timer on Saturday when running back Trey Ragas allowed the opening kickoff of the second half to bounce off his helmet and carom into the end zone. Ragas doubled down on his mistake by then taking the ball out of the end zone instead of conceding the single point with his team up 17-0 at the time.
The former Las Vegas Raider was in tough to make the roster regardless of his miscue but gaffes like that, while funny to the viewer, can make the difference between having a job and not when final cuts are made.
Worse in person
When the Argos said they were debuting new uniforms, I was intrigued. When they showed off the new helmets, I was underwhelmed and when the full kit was unveiled, I thought they were a massive miss. Seeing them in person did not change that opinion.
For a team that calls themselves the double blue, you would think they would try to incorporate both blues into their uniforms. The last redesign was too much of the darker blue and was much too plain looking. While the addition of the oars on the shoulder is a nice touch — even if they do look like feathers — these new uniforms are a miss for me.
The Ticats resume training camp on Monday at McMaster in preparation for their final preseason game next Friday against the Montreal Alouettes.
This will be Hamilton’s first trip to Montreal since last season’s East Semi-Final loss. The Tiger-Cats will not travel to La Belle Province again until the final week of the regular season but will host the Als twice in 2023, including in their home opener on June 23.