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REGINA — A Grey Cup rematch is on tap for Sunday evening at Mosaic Stadium, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats visit Regina for a meeting with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
It’s only been seven months since the Riders ended a storybook season with a 45-23 win in the Championship game on home turf, but plenty has changed in Riderville since.
That means while the Ticats may look to settle a score, third-year head coach Corey Chamblin and company are focused on how their club can bounce back from some key departures on both sides of the ball.
“It’s been very exciting, and I’m probably a little bit more excited than last year just to see how these guys react this game, and to see how far they progress,” Chamblin told Riderville.com.
The Riders lead the CFL with 16 starters, from Week 1 in 2013, returning to this year’s lineup but what’s of note are the few names that aren’t returning. Kory Sheets, Weston Dressler, Geroy Simon on offence and Craig Butler on defence were all major cogs in a banner year but aren’t back in Green and White this summer.
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Whenever Chamblin’s team dealt with injuries last season the mantra was ‘next man up’, which will have to be the focus again heading into 2014.
“I felt the young guys came in and have done a good job as far as picking up the CFL game and doing things like that,” Chamblin said. “This first game when it’s fast and the bullets are flying we’re really gonna see what we have, and I think these guys are gonna meet the test.”
Chamblin is excited and the rest of the team is ready, so clearly the subtractions are no reason for the reigning Grey Cup Champs to lower expectations this season.
Riders fans can easily recall two years ago at this time, when the team then too had an unknown at the running back position as Sheets lined up as the opening day starter. At receiver, meanwhile, the biggest question was how the receiving corps would handle the loss of Andy Fantuz.
Only now, with a winning culture already in place, the Riders are much better equipped to deal with any question marks.
“There are enough guys on the team who understand me as the coach, they understand the vision that we put in place at the top and they want to relay the message all the way down,” Chamblin said.
If training camp is any indication, the players believe in what Chamblin is preaching. Newcomers like Anthony Allen, Brett Swain, Chaz Schilens, and Ryan Smith have shown they can make an instant impact, while young returnees like Eron Riley have proven they’re ready for more on their plate.
Quarterback Darian Durant is impressed by their ability to adapt, despite being far less experienced than the group he led into last year’s championship season.
“I’m confident in those guys, they’re hard workers and they’ll do what they have to do to make sure that they’re ready on game day,” Durant said. “They’re not afraid to ask questions, most guys don’t want you to know that they don’t know what’s going on – those guys will ask questions just to make sure we’re on the same page and they’re in the right spot.”
“We’ll make it work, I’ve been around a long time and there have been new guys coming in and out all the time so at the end of the day as long as we can put them in positions to be successful then we’ll be successful as an offence.”
As good as it has been for the Riders so far, Sunday evening’s game provides the next big test. Now the games count and now the team officially embarks on its goal of winning a second straight Grey Cup Championship.
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A week into training camp Chamblin assessed his team as average, which means there’s a ways to go before the Riders can return to last November’s form.
“I still think we are average in some areas, and what I mean by that is we’re not truly a dominant team yet – I think we’re building to be that,” Chamblin said. “There may be some areas that we dominate and there will be some areas we need to continue to work on.”
“Right now we have to be consistent to be a dominant team.”
The Ticats should provide a pretty good measuring stick, but following an off-season of major changes – including switching quarterbacks and bolstering their defence with some marquee signings – the last thing they’re thinking about is something that happened seven months ago.
“That was last year,” Head Coach and General Manager Kent Austin told Ticats.ca. “It’s a new year and what you’ve done in the past, bad or good and in between – it doesn’t matter now, we’re building for the future.”
The Ticats have plenty to prove as they return to the scene of the 101st Grey Cup, which ended in disappointment. But for the man in his second season in Hamilton, thinking about getting revenge can only lead to negative happenings.
“We don’t focus on that stuff, it’s bad execution,” Austin continued. “Your level of preparation going into the game, making plays, playing a clean game, not having missed assignments – all the clichés you hear are really true.”
“That’s how you’re supposed to approach the game, being mentally and physically tough.”
Now set to play in a new stadium later this season in the wake of last year’s playoff success, 2014 is a year defined by great expectations for fans in Steeltown.
Headlining several big roster changes was the decision to cut ties with star pivot Henry Burris in favour of youngster Zach Collaros, who with just eight career CFL starts under his belt now takes over one of last year’s most explosive offences in the league.
Collaros won five of the eight games he started in and over his career posts a 99.4 passer rating with 15 touchdown passes. Now as a first-time opening day starter he looks to take the next step both for himself and his team.
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“I think Zach’s done a remarkable job coming up the learning curve really quickly,” Austin said ahead of Sunday’s contest. “He’s really prepared hard, not just during training camp but in the off-season.”
“I think he’ll be ready to play.”
The 25-year-old won’t have to do it alone, as the Ticats return the majority of their offensive starters plus a new dynamic target in Cary Koch, who signed with the team from Edmonton as a free agent.
Yet for all the talk about Collaros and the weapons surrounding him such as C.J. Gable, Fantuz, and Bakari Grant, the biggest changes may be on Hamilton’s defence, led by the addition of former Roughrider Butler.
The London, Ont. native was an integral part of the Riders’ championship defence, and the Ticats hope his leadership and experience can help their young team join the league’s elite and contend for another Grey Cup this season.
“I think the season they went through last year, they kind of learned a lot so it’s gonna prepare them for some upcoming things that we have to face through the season,” Butler said. “I’m looking forward to contributing any way I can, I like being a leader out there not necessarily vocally but through my play.”
Butler returns to play his former team in his very first game, after registering 135 tackles and 11 interceptions in three seasons with Saskatchewan.
– Hamilton and Saskatchewan were the two most improved teams in 2013, with four and three more wins respectively than in 2012.
– The Riders allowed a league-low 398 points in 2013, giving up just 21.8 points per game and 36 touchdowns all season.
– Only 26 players on the Riders’ active roster played in the 2013 Grey Cup, as the club has 15 new players to start 2014.
– Zach Collaros, Frederic Plesius, Cary Koch, Craig Butler, and Ted Laurent are among those big names making their Ticat debuts on Sunday.
Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
– With files from Riderville.com/Ticats.ca