June 25, 2014

Dunk: Are the stars aligned for the Tiger-Cats?

Derek Mortensen/CFL.ca

Expectations for the Ticats in the Steel City are higher than the smokestacks you see around Hamilton which stand as a symbol of its working mindset.

An attitude Tiger-Cats head coach and general manager Kent Austin has brought to the city’s beloved Canadian Football League franchise.

There is a feeling of excitement surrounding the Tiger-Cats maybe not seen or felt since the team won their last Grey Cup in 1999. So it might be worth pointing out Hamilton lost the CFL championship game in 1998 and the Tabbies made it back to win the league title one season later in Vancouver, the same city and stadium where the 102nd Grey Cup will be played.

A year ago Austin guided Hamilton to an appearance in the Grey Cup, but after the Ticats were routed 45-23 by the Riders in the CFL title game he knew his team had to improve to become champions.

Tireless work and a lot of tough decisions were made in the off-season. Austin released names such as receiver Dave Stala, kicker Luca Congi, linebacker Brandon Isaac, receiver Onrea Jones and saw long-time Ticats offensive lineman Marwan Hage plucked away in the Expansion Draft, among other personnel losses. The most notable of Austin’s moves came at the game’s pivotal position. He went out and signed 25-year-old quarterback Zach Collaros and then let go of veteran Henry Burris. Beginning with the acquisition of Collaros, all of Austin’s moves were calculated and aimed at raising the level of talent on the roster.

At the onset of free agency Hamilton’s football operations department was busy. Austin and his staff quickly inked defensive back/linebacker Craig Butler, receiver Cary Koch, defensive back Brandon Stewart, linebacker Abraham Kromah and offensive lineman Steve Myddelton to deals. Not to mention the signing of Justin Medlock to provide a steady presence in the kicking game and the welcomed addition of strong interior defensive lineman Ted Laurent early in training camp. Nearly all of the players added in the off-season have the ability to start at their respective positions and make an impact for the 2014 edition of the Ticats.

Austin infused his team with three ingredients: youth, speed and versatility. Football is a young mans game and the Ticats are far from a decrepit group. It’s clear with all the fresh, youthful legs that the collective team plays markedly faster than the 2013 version. And perhaps the most important trait Austin looks for is the ability to be versatile.

If the type of football players Austin tries to find were compared to chess pieces, he prefers to have as many queens on his roster as possible. The queen can move anywhere on the board, not held back in anyway. Austin and his staff don’t want to be restricted like a pawn. Instead the Ticats philosophy is about filling the board with as many queens as possible to be able to move in any direction required. Imagine playing chess with all queens against an opponent using all of the normal pieces? You’re chances of losing would be slim to none.

Austin believes flexibility offers the chance to sustain success and be able to field the best possible lineup each week throughout the long CFL season. All but a few players on the roster are required to know, and be able to play at a high level, more than just their so called ‘primary’ position. Ideally linemen can play inside and out, receivers and defensive backs can move from strong to weak without missing a beat, linebackers can blitz one down, be strong against the run on the next and drop back into coverage as well, running backs must run, catch and block. And at quarterback, the position Austin coaches, the starter must be able to make the right decision where to go with the football quickly, throw the ball to all parts of the wide field, run the football effectively when called upon and escape pressure when it’s required.

It appears Austin has found his queen piece at quarterback and traded in pawns for enough queens in the off-season to checkmate the rest of the league and claim the Grey prize.