O’Leary: Masoli ‘excited about being the guy’ in Hamilton

They stood on a football field in northern California in early March, envisioning that the end of their coming season could take them back to where they started.

There was the quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, the receiver, Shamawd Chambers, and the linebacker, Simoni Lawrence. All three now Hamilton Tiger-Cats, all three having started their CFL careers together in 2012 in Edmonton, all with the same goal.

“I told him and Simoni, ‘How great would it be to end the year in Edmonton where it started?’” Chambers said on Tuesday, at the end of the Ticats’ first day of mini-camp in Hamilton.

“It’ll happen.”

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You can’t make any sweeping conclusions on a team in Day 1 of mini-camp, but there’s clearly a confidence radiating from the group of players and coaches that assembled at Tim Horton’s Field. They’re not concerned about the questions around them. They’re here to get to Edmonton and to bring Hamilton its first Grey Cup since 1999.

If they’re going to get there, Masoli, entering his seventh season in the league but his first full one as a starter, will have to drive the car. He’ll get guidance from head coach June Jones, who is in a similar situation. A lifelong coach in the NFL and NCAA, the last 10 games of the 2017 marked his debut as a CFL head coach.

“I don’t know if he’s done that before (started) up here with any other team, but Jeremiah is a leader,” Jones said. “He’s got poise, he’s got toughness and he throws the ball accurately. Those are pretty good things to have if you’re a quarterback. He’s excited about being the guy.”

“It feels good,” Masoli casually understated, standing at the podium in the Ticats’ media centre. “I’m not really worried about it. Just trying to be as good as I can be to my teammates, be the best quarterback I could be, best teammate I could be.”

You won’t get a lot out of Masoli when he’s at the podium. He’s comfortable up there and friendly enough, but he’s to the point. Chambers, who was traded to Hamilton last September, said that’s kind of what you get behind closed doors, too.

“He’s calm, relaxed, he’s someone that you can hang out with,” Chambers said. “He’s cool and pretty much that’s what it is. He’s not a camera guy, he’s not really with stuff like that.

“He’s a leader and there’s definitely a mutual respect, just because I know where he’s come from and what he’s had to do to be where he is now.”

To this point, Masoli’s career has been a successful test of patience. He spent the 2012 season in Edmonton on the injured list, learning the game. Traded to Hamilton that off-season, he held the clipboard on the sidelines for the Ticats while Zach Collaros established himself as the team’s starter. Injuries thrust him into a pair of playoff starts in 2015 and had eight starts in 2016. With the Ticats reeling at 0-8 last year, Jones assumed head coaching duties and put the ball in Masoli’s hands. He responded by being the most productive quarterback in the league through those 10 games. The winless Ticats went 6-4 the rest of the season, while Masoli threw for 3,032 yards and rushed for 384. Jones was confident enough in Masoli that the team dealt Collaros to Saskatchewan in the off-season. While there’s no question that Masoli is atop the QB depth chart as it is, he’s had to wonder about his fate while the team sorts out its situation with Johnny Manziel.

Even with the whispers of Manziel coming to the Tiger-Cats, Masoli is heading into 2018 as the No. 1 QB (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

The most talked about neg-list player the league has ever seen, Manziel’s name only came up once on Tuesday. It was pointed out to Jones that no one on the team’s roster is wearing No. 2 — the one that Manziel has worn his entire career.

The coach stepped around the question as deftly as Masoli has incoming d-linemen over the last year.

“The players that we have here right now, I know that we could win the Grey Cup with the group we’ve got. I feel very confident about that,” Jones said. “I think in the room this morning, I could feel that they feel it, the kids feel it and that’s the bottom line.”

Standing in the potential periphery of one of the biggest stories in football, Masoli has done what he’s always done: put his head down and continued to work.

“(I’m) just focusing more on the little things. I think as you get older you get a little more wiser, or you should at least, knowing your strengths and weaknesses,” Masoli said. “(I) just focused on some of my strengths but knowing what I’m weak at and trying to get better at that. That’s pretty much it, just trying to be the best player I can be.”

“He’s worked incredibly hard and he deserves the opportunity to come out here and show what he can do,” Chambers said. “(When he got the chance) he exploded and he was a great leader for our team.

“That’s what it’s about. Mike Reilly had to sit behind somebody, Bo Levi had to sit behind somebody. The list goes on. Same with Kerry Joseph, Darian Durant. You don’t just step into the CFL and you’re great. Zach Collaros was behind Ricky Ray. That’s just how it all works.

“At some point you deserve the opportunity and he took it and literally ran away with it. He knows what it is.

“I’m excited for him and we just want to go out there and win football games. Nothing has to be said from me. I’ll ride with him until the wheels fall off.”