Ticats’ Scott Milanovich threatens to find players he can ‘count on’ after ‘unacceptable’ preseason special teams penalties

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym/RFB Sport Photography

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats opened their preseason at home against the Ottawa Redblacks on Saturday, but the shine of a new campaign has already worn off for head coach Scott Milanovich.

“It felt fun right up until the point where we took about five penalties on special teams in the first quarter,” the first-year bench boss told reporters following the contest. “A lot to coach off of. I told the players and the coaches in there, ‘You’re either coaching it or you’re allowing it to happen.’ And it’s not going to be allowed to happen.”

The Ticats fell by a score of 31-22 to Ottawa in the exhibition contest, in large part due to struggles with discipline. The home team ran away with the penalty margin, committing 10 infractions for 124 yards. Much of that came in the game’s third phase, where the Tabbies drew five flags and surrendered 55 yards of free field position.

With plenty of rookies getting their first taste of CFL action, mistakes were inevitable. However, the volume of errors on display at Tim Hortons Field was beyond the pale for the Ticats’ new coach in his first game at the helm.

“Guys are going to be evaluated on special teams as well as offence and defence. Special teams generally in preseason games is a little bit of a nightmare with that many people but that was unacceptable,” Milanovich emphasized.

“To some degree, you expect a little bit of that. You’re not gonna condone it, but it was too many times. It’s a lack of focus, it’s a lack of attention to detail, and those are things that throughout the course of the season end up getting you beat. That’s why we’ve got to get better as coaches and we’ve got to get better as players, or we’re gonna have to find ones that we can count on.”

Discipline has been a consistent problem for Hamilton over the past several seasons. The team finished dead last in the CFL with 163 penalty flags thrown against them in 2023, also committing the most on special teams with 49. That was part of the reason for an offseason shuffle that saw Orlondo Steinauer moved into the president’s chair and Milanovich installed on the sideline.

The club hired Paul Boudreau, a participant in the past four Grey Cups as a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, to right the ship on special teams. His first outing was underwhelming for reasons other than the barrage of penalties, as Redblacks’ returner DeVonte Dedmon managed to field a punt late in the first quarter and race 91 yards untouched for a return major.

While Global punter Bailey Flint took some heat for his ball placement on the play, Milanovich was quick to point out the necessity of covering every kick effectively.

“Obviously you’d like it by the numbers, it was a little bit more in the alley, but we’ve got to cover those too,” he stressed. “Nobody’s perfect, we’ve got to cover them all.”

“I think it’s just the details and playing penalty-free. Coach Boudreau’s special teams have been the best in the league six out of the last seven years and I know that’s gonna be a big emphasis tomorrow and throughout the rest of training camp.”

The 51-year-old bench boss did see some promise in his team’s own return game before the penalties erased those positive gains. He believes the issues had nothing to do with effort and everything to do with banging off rust after a long offseason.

“I felt like the guys were playing hard. It’s just what happens when you haven’t played in a while, a year or however long these guys haven’t played, they lose their discipline, they lose their technique and their fundamentals when they get out there in the game,” he said.

“I would expect to see an improvement. I don’t know how much our starters will play next week because of the short week following the preseason games, so we’ve got two weeks to get it cleaned up.”

The Ticats will wrap up their preseason on Friday, May 31 against the Toronto Argonauts. The team will then trim its roster by midnight the following day and begin preparations for their season opener against the Calgary Stampeders on Friday, June 7.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.