HAMILTON — The Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes open their pre-season slate on Saturday afternoon at Ron Joyce Stadium in an early rematch of last year’s Eastern Semi-Final.
Less is on the line this time but both teams are still in it to win it, particularly after making some key off-season changes in hopes of raising the Grey Cup in late November.
“Absolutely we want to win,” Ticats’ Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin told Ticats.ca ahead of Saturday’s clash. “You play to win, even in a pre-season game.”
Ticats fans are happy to have Austin’s expected tenacity back in the fold this season because it means there is nothing but continuity in Steeltown. Most of the head office, coaching staff, and starting depth chart returns in 2013, on a team that surprised everyone with a visit to Regina for the 101st Grey Cup.
Added on defence are two major game-changers in non-import safety Craig Butler, who joined the team as a free agent from the Grey Cup-winning Saskatchewan Roughriders, and more recently non-import defensive tackle Ted Laurent, who arrived this month after trying out in the NFL.
On offence, meanwhile, the Ticats added to an already-stacked receiving corps with the addition of speedster Cary Koch, who joins the likes of Bakari Grant, Andy Fantuz, and Greg Ellingson among others.
The biggest change of all though comes under centre, where the team said sayonara to future Hall of Fame quarterback Henry Burris while adding a promising but less proven young pivot in former Toronto Argonaut Zach Collaros.
For the future outlook of the team it appears to be the right move, but for now there remains the matter of the 25-year-old stepping into the spotlight and proving he’s the real deal.
So far it doesn’t appear Austin is sweating his decision.
“He’s smart, he’s a diligent preparation guy, he takes coaching, and he’s been in the league,” Austin told the team’s official website ahead of Saturday’s game.
“He’s like everybody else that comes to a new offence – he’s going to get better and better,” he continued about his new starting quarterback. “He wants to be great, he prepares well, he studies – he’s doing well. He has a better understanding, it’s sinking in at a deeper level and that will only get better over time.”
Collaros proved during his time with the Argos last season that he can win in this league, filling in admirably when Ricky Ray went down with an injury. Now though, his situation is a little different – now he’s officially ‘the guy’.
But while Saturday marks the true beginning of Collaros’ first full season as a starter and his first chance to take the spotlight, he also knows he’ll have some pretty good teammates in his corner.
“We have a great group here and they’ve made it an easy transition for me,” he said.
The Alouettes may not have a Grey Cup appearance to build off but they’re in a pretty similar boat as the Ticats entering 2014, especially when it comes to the quarterback position.
Compared to the start of last season when Anthony Calvillo went down with injury and there didn’t appear to be any real answer under centre. However, the Als now find themselves heading in the right direction under the leadership of former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Troy Smith.
Smith enjoyed an excellent rookie campaign last year after joining the team partway through the season, putting up a quarterback rating of 86.3 and leading the Alouettes to a bounce back second half. So far he’s helping ease the transition from the Calvillo era to the next one, although he admits he hasn’t done it alone.
“It’s not all on me,” Smith said in an interview with MontrealAlouettes.com. “I have 11 other guys out there on the field and they do a tremendous job of being where they’re supposed to be.”
“I think they take pride in being professionals also, so they make my job easy.”
Joining Smith on the first-team offence on Saturday will be Chad Johnson, who arrived in Als’ camp this year amid plenty of fanfare following a prolific NFL career. He faces no shortage of competition in a receiving corps that includes S.J. Green, Duron Carter, Brandon London, and Jamel Richardson – something he welcomes.
“The speed is exactly the same thing I dealt with the past 12 years in the NFL, there’s really no difference,” Johnson said. “The competition level has been an eye-opener, and the level of competition is really no different, including the speed of the game.”
“This is nothing to take as a joke, with me being on both sides of the fences now this is the real deal up here as well.”
The biggest change for the Alouettes comes on the sideline, where Jim Popp relinquishes his head coaching duties but remains general manager and former Edmonton Eskimos head coach Tom Higgins replaces him.
In seven years coaching Edmonton then Calgary, Higgins won one Grey Cup and appeared in another, never failing to make the playoffs and compiling an overall record of 72-53-1. He’s a welcome addition for a team that struggled last season to replace the departed Marc Trestman.
“It’s like riding a bike, but another way to compare it is it’s like your wedding day and it’s like the birth of your children,” Higgins told the team’s official site. “I’m still smiling from ear to ear and I can’t imagine being any place else.”
Likening his new job to getting married, Higgins added that he hopes the honeymoon period lasts quite a while.
“Every coach has a honeymoon period and it’s how you react after adversity strikes,” he said. “There’s an expiration date on everyone and everything.”
“This coaching position has an expiration date and I hope it’s a lot longer than the last coach that was here.”
Like the Ticats, Higgins is planning to get his top players some early reps in the only matchup between these teams until Week 11.