July 14, 2017

Landry: Ticats’ spirits not wavered despite sluggish start

Dave Chidley/CFL.ca

Simoni Lawrence, the great gabbing linebacker in that Hamilton Ticats’ defensive unit, the man who rarely – if ever – is caught at a loss for words, is still chatty this week, displaying the positive mindset that fuels his rat-a-tat rhetoric on a consistent basis.

He’s not happy, though. Not happy that the Ticats have started the season with two straight losses, nor is he happy that his mates have been exploited. But that is not keeping him from seeing the sunny skies that he believes are destined to bless his team as the season stretches out. If there’s one thing you can say about Simoni Lawrence it’s that he is moving forward emotionally almost always. He never lingers for long over the worries and disappointments of the recent past.

“I’d rather have these games now,” says Lawrence just after he and the Ticats had returned to work following a 37-20 loss to the Roughriders in Regina. “We got way better than we played in Toronto. I feel like we’ve just gotta be positive.”

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The beginning of the season hasn’t been all smiles for Simoni Lawrence after his team’s 0-2 start.

Yes, the Hamilton Ticats were far from perfect in their loss to Saskatchewan, but at least things were better. At least his team’s effort in that game didn’t make Lawrence feel like losing his lunch the way that Week 1 loss did.

“Watching the Toronto film, for me personally, it made me sick and want to throw up,” Lawrence says with no laughter accompanying the statement.

The Ticats are in a pretty crummy place right now. They are searching for answers on both sides of the ball after being outscored 69-35 cumulatively in their first two games. That kind of thing doesn’t usually make for good humour, even from those like Lawrence who are known for a good turn of phrase and plenty of levity.

Not that Lawrence ever strays very far from having a laugh as he does when asked about the leg injury he suffered during the Saskatchewan game that forced him to the sidelines early. “Wolverine instincts kicked in and I’m feeling a little better,” he snorts, lauding the Ticats’ training and medical staff for doing everything right and ensuring he could get back on the field on Tuesday morning.

Lawrence wanted that badly. There’s work to be done, corrections to be made and injuries to overcome as the Ticats prepare to host the BC Lions on Saturday night. The sixth-year veteran is facing things in a calm, measured fashion, even if his high energy presence can sometimes belie that approach.

“One thing you’re always promised is adversity,” he says, opening discussion about Hamilton’s trials and tribulations so far. They are obstacles that have seen the Ticats plunge to the bottom of pretty well every major offensive and defensive stats category you can think of.

On offence: time of possession, last. Yards per play, last. Average rushing yards, average passing yards, completion percentage, last, last and last.

That is not Lawrence’s area of expertise of course, but there is bad news on his side of the football as well. The Ticats’ defence is off to a slow start just two years after they were one of the great scourges of the CFL. The Argos and Roughriders averaged 443 yards in passing during the first two games. That’s a league worst for Hamilton’s defence. Combined, Toronto gunslinger Ricky Ray and Saskatchewan pivot Kevin Glenn rang up a quarterback efficiency rating of 115.1 and a completion percentage of 75.3 while the Ticats have yielded an average of 7.9 yards per play. All of that sees them at the bottom of the stats page. It’s true that against the run Hamilton is ranked a robust third-best, but part of the reason is because neither the Argos nor the Roughriders saw the need to run the ball very much.

The Ticats’ mood, therefore, is a little edgy. Lawrence promises though that it remains far from bleak.

“Guys are pissed off but we’re trying to put everything into perspective,” he says. “Nobody likes losing. Losing sucks. We’re all super competitive so everybody’s gonna have their mean streak for a little bit.”

The questions are out there. The doubters are growing their legion. Is the Ticats’ defence just not up to snuff?

“I’d tell them to put the money up,” Lawrence says of the skeptics, his response part snarly, part playful. “I don’t like arguing with people so I just tell people to put money up on stuff.”

Hamilton lost their accomplished defensive coordinator during the off-season when Orlondo Steinauer exited to pursue an NCAA opportunity. With special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold being elevated to the position, there have been some changes in philosophy and scheme. Lawrence believes even the subtle bits of reconstruction are having an effect, one that he hopes will soon be overcome.

“It’s a new system,” he says. “We gotta learn it. Everything’s new. You’ve just got to buy in and accept everything that’s going on.”

“They’re both great minds,” he says of Steinauer and Reinebold, “but different minds so you’ve gotta get used to how they think (differently).”

The Hamilton defence took steps back in 2016 under Steinauer with injuries playing at least a bit of a part in the retreat. Key gaps in the secondary to begin the 2017 season are taking their toll as well. There is little question that the absence of halfback Emanuel Davis, a CFL East Division all-star last season, has changed the landscape in that Hamilton defensive backfield.

Lawrence says there has been a learning curve with Reinebold taking over defensive coordinator duties with the departure of Steinauer (CFL)

Another East all-star, halfback Abdul Kanneh, has also missed the Ticats’ first two games. The former Ottawa REDBLACK signed as a free agent this past off-season. He was back at practice this week, fuelling hopes that he can make his Ticats debut against the Lions. Lawrence, like most every football player and coach, flatly refuses to accept all-star absences as a reason for the sub-par play of a team or unit. However, with his voice rising excitedly, you could tell that the impending addition of Kanneh has him jacked up.

“Yeah, man, it felt so good having him next to me at the boundary,” Lawrence says, enthusiastically, referring to the day’s practice.

“In camp it was so fun playing and talking with him. When you’ve got players like that around you… it was like when (John) Chick got here. I was like ‘man, I can’t wait to show Chick how good I am just because he’s a ball player.’ Abdul’s a ball player, too. Just playing with people like that, it elevates your game. Whether you like to think it does or not, it does.”

You could find teammates of Lawrence’s who will say the same thing about him. There is no doubt that his positive, push forward attitude will be helpful to the Ticats as they try to dig out of a sluggish start.

“We’re gonna be a very good football team,” Lawrence insists, returning to the theme of improvement from game one to game two. “I feel like we ran our blitzes a lot better (against Saskatchewan). They weren’t perfect but we ran them a lot better than Week 1. We were competing. At the DB level, we got our hands on some balls.”

“Our D-backs are getting better, linebackers are getting better and our D-line, they’re gonna find their groove and dominate.”

You can’t keep the irrepressible spirit of Simoni Lawrence down. Nor, he says, can you squash the collective spirit of his team.

“When you start losing when you’re expected to win certain games, people start to go ‘oh, this team sucks,’ or the players stop believing. I feel like guys are just focused and concentrating on trying to get better.”

Even if you haven’t seen it, Simoni Lawrence has; there’s a hint of something better up ahead despite what’s come to pass. He would rather seize the day in order to form a more perfect immediate future than spend time moaning about yesterday.

“We feel confident,” he says, as the interview wraps up.

“There’s no wavering over here.”