June 19, 2014

Dunk: The Ticats’ new man in the middle

Gregory Campbell/Ticats.ca

There will be a new man starting at middle linebacker for the Ticats.

After nine-year Canadian Football League veteran Jamall Johnson decided not to re-sign with Hamilton in the off-season, it left an important role open. There are two main contenders to claim the starting ‘MIKE’ spot: national Frederic Plesius and international Abraham Kromah.

“We’re just letting them compete, that’s what’s been really fun,” defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer said.

Plesius was a second round selection, 10th overall, in the 2012 CFL Draft by the Ticats. And after playing out his university eligibility he arrived in Hamilton for the 2013 campaign, suiting up in 15 regular season games.

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Early last year Plesius was getting used to the speed of the pro game on special teams. As the season wore on and Plesius became more comfortable, Steinauer put together some packages to get him on the field on defence.

Then on November 2, 2013 Plesius made his first career CFL start at middle linebacker in Hamilton’s final regular season game, he made four tackles and helped hold the Bombers to just seven points in a Ticats win.

One start and a year playing in Steinauer’s defensive system gave Plesius a clear edge in the competition to win the starting ‘MIKE’ position.

“For sure in terms of the scheme and playbook I feel like I have an advantage,” Plesius said. “It’s all about alignment, assignment, execution and doing your job. It’s a pretty versatile system.”

“When you ask me directly how much does [Plesius having experience in the defence] help him, I would say tremendously,” Steinauer said. “It helps a lot by just playing and watching the game slow down.”

Something that also aided Plesius’s development as a linebacker last season was being around Johnson. He was able to see first hand how a consistently productive professional linebacker handled the rigors of a long schedule.

Plesius saw how Johnson broke down film, communicated with teammates and knew not only his ownassignments but those of each player on every down as well.

In an effort to better condition his body to be on the field for every snap Plesius used hot yoga, along with his weight-training regimen, to help him slim down and improve his quickness too.

“I lost about 15-20 pounds. The CFL is a bigger field and I have to be able to run all over,” Plesius explained.

“I’m in the 228-233-pound range. The last time I weighed this much I was 17. I need to get used to my speed because I am much lighter.”

A leaner Plesius has been taking a lot of reps with the first team defence throughout training camp, but Kromah has seen his fair share. After suffering a fractured right fibula in August of 2012, Kromah feels like he’s fully healthy once again.

“It had lingered on a little bit,” he said. “I’m 100 per cent now, running full speed and doing everything as normal.”

A coveted player on the CFL free agent market in February, Kromah decided to sign with Hamilton and ever since he’s been working learn the new defensive scheme.

“Early on it was a little bit harder because it was a new system,” Kromah said. “I had to put my mind in rookie mode and start from scratch to do things the way they want me to do it and I’m getting more comfortable.”

“Coach O’s system is proven and it works very well. I love his philosophy. Everybody has to make their play and everybody is accountable to each other on defence. I also feel like he balances that out with a lot of freedom to make plays and do what makes sense.”

Steinauer has been carefully monitoring all the different aspects of the competition for the starting middle linebacker job.

“It’s a combination of practice and games, and also special teams factor in. It’s the whole thing, leadership, understanding and being able to run the defence – a whole gamut of things,” the second-year defensive schemer said. “These things are evaluated daily.”

Communication by the man in the middle is vitally important in Steinauer’s system, but then again he requires all of his players to be vocal on the field.

“Our middle linebacker is going to be required to make the majority of the calls, but we believe in everybody having to communicate and having to relay signals and calls.”

“I think that’s an old misconception that every defence has the middle linebacker make all their checks. I think the game has changed a little bit and I think it’s a little bit different than that.”

“I’ve been part of two defences where the ‘MIKE’ linebacker actually didn’t make the calls, that’s just how it appears to those on the outside. It was actually the ‘WILL’ linebacker or the free safety who made the calls.”

“On our defence we have multiple people making calls. It’s about putting everybody on the same page.”

There is no question Hamilton’s starting middle linebacker must be able to effectively communicate back and forth with the other 11 men on defence. On top of that Steinauer conveyed just how the passport of one player or another might factor into the decision on the man that will ultimately start in the middle.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t, but the best player is going to play. This is about winning football games. If it’s a national player than obviously that would affect the football team on offence and defence. And if it’s an international player it would affect it the same. By no means has that position been labeled an American or Canadian position at this point,” Steinauer said.

“If it was a Canadian spot it would be done, but that’s not how we built our ratio. We built it with flexibility so it doesn’t matter who we play we can play the best player we currently have.”

Hamilton’s defensive boss added just because one player is chosen to start on opening day doesn’t mean they’re going to be the starter on Labour Day or in the Grey Cup. Clear communication from Steinauer that just because training camp is over, and one man is anointed the starter, complacency will not be tolerated.