Five training camp battles to watch for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym

When the Hamilton Tiger-Cats take to the field on Sunday at Ron Joyce Stadium on McMaster University campus for the first day of training camp, there will be a lot of familiar faces missing.

A second consecutive 8-10 season resulting in an East Semi-Final loss to the Montreal Alouettes spurred change throughout the organization.

The team’s president of football operation Orlondo Steinauer stepped down from his head coaching role, handing the coaching reigns to Scott Milanovich. Ed Hervey was named the team’s lone general manager, a position he previously shared with assistant general managers Drew Allemang and Spencer Zimmerman.

The most notable name absent for the first day of camp is fan favourite Simoni Lawrence, who announced his retirement from the CFL after a decorated decade-long career. Lawrence was a pillar of the Ticats’ defence throughout his time with the team, and fans will get their first glimpse of life after Simoni in 2024.

Lawrence isn’t the only familiar name no longer wearing the leaping tiger as the team parted ways with several veterans in the offseason. Among them are defensive tackles Ted Laurent and Dylan Wynn, defensive end Ja’Gared Davis and versatile defensive back Tunde Adeleke. A number of new players were added to replace the departures, including defensive back Jamal Peters, defensive end Brandon Barlow, and defensive tackle DeWayne Hendrix.

Due to such a large overhaul of the roster, there are several lingering questions that will need to be answered before Week 1 in Calgary. Here are five spots worth tracking over the next few weeks as we inch towards the start of the 2024 season.

Quarterback

Scott Milanovich stated the starting quarterback position was Bo Levi Mitchell’s to lose, but his comments will not stop sophomore quarterback Taylor Powell from making things interesting.

Powell was Hamilton’s best quarterback statistically speaking last year, completing 67 percent of his passes for 2,283 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Mitchell on the other hand posted a 2-4 record, completed 59.1 percent of his passes for 1,031 yards with six touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Mitchell showed up to rookie camp in a walking boot, which adds another interesting wrinkle to the competition. If Mitchell is at full health to start the regular season, the leash will be short should the Ticats once again get off to a rocky start.

The starting quarterback job isn’t the only position up for grabs as the Ticats are looking for someone to take hold of the third spot on the depth chart. Kevin Thomson could be the frontrunner due to previous CFL experience. The 28-year-old signed with the team after spending time with the BC Lions in 2021 and 2022, where he reportedly impressed during training camp but suffered a serious preseason injury against the Calgary Stampeders on a controversial hit from Titus Wall.

His challenger is rookie quarterback Harrison Frost who spent the past two seasons at the University of West Georgia. Frost completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 6,730 yards, 50 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. He also carried the ball 35 times for 51 yards and one touchdown. While some may think Frost is facing an uphill battle due to his lack of experience playing the Canadian game, the 25-year-old doesn’t need to look much further than Powell for an example of someone who made the team under similar circumstances.

Receiver

Heading into training camp, it appears three of the five receiver spots are already locked down. All-star pass catcher Tim White will take his usual boundary slotback position, with third-year Canadian Kiondre Smith likely finding himself a part of the starting five. The remaining three spots however, remain an open competition.

The Tiger-Cats have wanted to play two Canadians in the receiving corps for the past few seasons and will have the option to do so again this year. Six-foot-four Luther Hakunavanhu was snatched away from Calgary during CFL free agency, as was Brendan O’Leary-Orange who spent the past three seasons in a depth role in Winnipeg. Local boy Tyler Ternowski remains in the fold heading into his fourth season and rookie Jacob Patten was signed out of McMaster. If the Tabbies decide to go with two Canadian receivers, there are a plethora of options to choose from.

Should the Ticats decide to start four Americans, Justin McGriff and Omar Bayless would be the two frontrunners for those positions. McGriff was one of the most intriguing players on the roster heading into the 2023 season after a stellar training camp but was forced to miss the entirety of the campaign due to an injury to his right leg. Head coach and offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich has been known to favour big-bodied pass catchers in the past and McGriff’s six-foot-six frame fits that bill. Bayless was impressive in limited action late last season, which included a two-touchdown performance in Week 18 in Regina.

The team has brought in nearly a dozen new faces to compete for jobs, so don’t be shocked if one of those unfamiliar names pushes for an open spot.

Linebacker

No other position group on the Ticats roster saw more turnover than the linebackers. The starting trio from last season of Simoni Lawrence, Jameer Thurman and Chris Edwards are all gone. Lawrence and Edwards both retired and Thurman headed west to Saskatchewan.

They were dealt another blow when Jordan Williams, who was acquired from the Toronto Argonauts in a massive deal, told the team that he was retiring to pursue other opportunities this week. The team had Williams pencilled in as the starting weakside backer, but will have to make some adjustments on the fly.

Could second-year player Carthell Flowers-Lloyd transition into that spot? Coming off a spectacular rookie season where he registered 31 special teams tackles in 18 games, the expectation was that Flowers-Lloyd would be competing for the strong-side linebacker position but he has a similar body type to Tyrice Beverette, who’s excelled at the weak side spot in Montreal. The team brought in several American rookies who could also contend for the job.

Another intriguing name is recently signed Canadian strong-side linebacker Enock Makonzo, who was inked by the Ticats after his release from Edmonton. Makonzo got into 21 games with the Elks over two seasons, registering 67 defensive tackles, one special teams tackle, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. Should the team decide they want to keep one of their Canadian ratio spots at linebacker, they now have the flexibility to do so with both Makonzo and Nic Cross on the roster.

Barring a setback in his recovery from a season-ending Achilles injury a year ago, returnee Kyle Wilson should get the first crack at becoming the starting middle linebacker. The team is high on Wilson, who filled in admirably for Simoni Lawrence in 2022 after he went down with an injury. In his CFL career, Wilson has suited up for 31 games, registering 57 defensive tackles, 10 special teams tackles, and two forced fumbles. There was some doubt about his availability to start the season, but it appears his recovery is ahead of schedule based on the videos Wilson has been posting on social media.

Defensive end

The Ticats seem set at defensive tackle with Casey Sayles and DeWayne Hendrix manning the middle of the defensive line. The battle for the two defensive end spots is where things will get interesting.

Brandon Barlow a free agent acquisition from Toronto, is a safe bet to pencil in one of the spots. The six-foot-four, 260-pound edge rusher finished second on the Argos with nine sacks and the Ticats are betting on him to take that next step to become one of the league’s premiere pass rushers.

The other spot is dependent on what the team does with the ratio. If Hamilton decides to start four American receivers, then Mason Bennett should be in line for a bigger role in his fourth season. If two Canadians start in the receiving corps, then Cedric Wilcots II and Nick Usher will factor into the conversation to become the final piece of the puzzle.

Defensive back

There is really only one spot up for grabs in the secondary. All-star Jamal Peters rounds out the trio of Argonauts making their way down the QEW after he signed in February. Peters will take his usual spot at boundary corner next to Kenneth George Jr., who will transition to halfback after seeing time there late last season. The Ticats locked up ball hawk Stavros Katsantonis for the next two years to play safety while also re-signing versatile defensive back Richard Leonard who can play both corner and half.

The sudden retirement of Javien Elliott may have thrown a wrench into the Tiger-Cats plans, leading to an open competition for the final spot. Will Sunderland and Dexter Lawson Jr. both played a fair bit in their first full seasons in the league so they should be at the forefront of the competition.

Several other defensive backs were also signed in the off-season, notably Michael Jacquet who played in seven games with the Philadelphia Eagles, including two starts, before being waived in October 2021. The team also brought back Lawrence Woods III, who spent a brief time this off-season with the B.C. Lions. Should either Sunderland or Lawson Jr. falter, a player with his experience could step into that role when camp gets underway.

Troy Durrell is a University of Calgary and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology graduate. He covers the CFL and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.