April 23, 2018

Ticats surrounded by optimism as mini-camp arrives

The Canadian Press

HAMILTON — Along with the warmer weather, there’s a spell of real optimism in the air as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats begin their three-day mini-camp Tuesday at Tim Hortons Field.

Veterans and first-year players under contract have been invited to participate in the voluntary off-season activity, which marks a starting point in the Ticats’ 2018 season. This comes months after June Jones engineered an impressive turnaround in Steeltown, leading his team on a 6-4 run since taking over on Labour Day.

The Ticats will use this week’s camp as a lunching pad for the new campaign, getting a head start on training camp which officially opens on May 20.

Here are some of the storylines going into this week’s camp:

Masoli magic

Jeremiah Masoli is the unquestioned starting quarterback going into a season for the first time in his professional career, and he’s earned it. After taking over on Labour Day, Masoli threw 15 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, finishing his season with five straight games of 300-plus yards.

The Ticats’ quarterback change played a key role in the team’s success late last season (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

This is by far the biggest opportunity of the 29-year-old’s career, but it doesn’t come without added responsibility. The bar has been raised for the former Oregon Ducks star, whose ability to improvise and make plays with his legs is tailor made for the CFL and June Jones’ offence.

In the absence of Johnny Manziel, whose CFL future remains murky, this week’s camp will be critical for backup quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. The 25-year-old is considered one of the top quarterback prospects in the league and will look to further his development going into his third CFL season. Adams Jr. could challenge for a starting job down the road if Masoli struggles.

Bryant Moniz and Dane Evans are the other quarterbacks on the roster for the Ticats.

What’s old is new

While many of the defensive starters return, there will be a new energy on that side of the ball for the Ticats as Phillip Lolley is out as the defensive coordinator and famed NFL coach Jerry Glanville is in. While Glanville has never coached in the CFL, he’ll get plenty of help from Orlondo Steinauer, who returns to the Ticats as the assistant head coach after a one-year absence.

Steinauer piloted some of the CFL’s most daunted defences during his time as a defensive coordinator, so his expertise should pay dividends starting immediately.

The young defensive backs attending this week’s camp may have the most to gain, as there appear to be some openings in the Ticats’ secondary. The defensive backfield was a weakness for most of 2017, while Craig Butler (retired) and Emanuel Davis (released) have since departed.

Courtney Stephen, Richard Leonard and Abdul Kanneh appear to be locks to start, but nothing else is a given as the Ticats look to improve a defence that ranked seventh in the league in allowing 385 passing yards per game in 2017.

Changing of the guard

Tuesday will mark the first time since 2012 that Kent Austin isn’t on the Ticats sideline at this time, as the former head coach transitions to his new role as a consultant. Austin stepped down as head coach before Labour Day last season, while earlier this month the Ticats announced his role will be further reduced.

Kent Austin’s absence from the Ticats’ sideline will be noticeable in camps this year (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

While the Ticats struggled under Austin’s watch in 2017, the former CFL quarterback helped guide the team to back to back Grey Cup appearances in 2013 and 2014.

In a sense, Tuesday’s opening of camp marks a changing of the guard as Jones looks to build on the success he established late last season in his first full camp as head coach.

Ready to run

Alex Green may have the Ticats running back job locked up after averaging 5.7 yards per carry and scoring five touchdowns in six games last season. The Ticats only have one other American back on the roster right now, but 25-year-old and former UCF star Storm Johnson is an intriguing prospect.

Green averaged 13 carries per game in his six starts, but the Ticats’ ground game could be more involved in 2018 under Jones. The Ticats averaged 89.3 rushing yards per game last season, the second-lowest mark in the CFL.

Also keep an eye on national backs Mercer Timmis and Sean Thomas-Erlington. Timmis was a second round draft pick (14th overall) in 2016 while Thomas-Erlington was picked in the eighth round (66th overall) last year.

Another player worth monitoring this week is veteran receiver Terrence Toliver. Toliver missed almost all of 2017 after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first game, but should be a primary receiver for Masoli this season as long as he’s healthy.