HAMILTON — Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach Orlondo Steinauer is always studying the X’s and O’s off the field, but he’s picked up some new hobbies while spending time with his family this off-season.
“As far as me keeping busy, (I’ve got) three daughters and my wife. The house has never been cleaner. We’ve got this thing spic and span,” Steinauer said. “I’m on puzzle number two, challenging myself, or we’re challenging ourselves with this thousand-piece black and white puzzle. It’s very frustrating very humbling. But we’re having fun with it. (We’re) playing Monopoly, we’re playing wizard — we’re a board game family.”
On Monday, Steinauer went live on Instagram to connect with Tiger-Cats fans and go through the burning questions surrounding the team heading into the 2020 campaign.
1. How are the Ticats dealing with COVID-19?
Steinauer and his staff always preach to their players to focus on controllable factors, however, as he admitted Monday, the recent COVID-19 outbreak is one of those things that you can’t control.
With recent events being cancelled around sports, Steinauer has been staying in touch with the players — both living in Hamilton and elsewhere — during the entire process.
“I’m just encouraging the players to spend time with their families and do the right thing and when they can get a workout in to get a workout,” he said. “Yeah, we’re just rolling and encouraging and positive and just really letting them know that they can talk to us.”
2. The great pivot debate
Many believed that following the 2019 season that Evans was the man to carry the torch for the Tabbies into the future.
That’s not to say that Masoli has lost a step in any way. He was unquestionably the man to start last season and throughout the first stretch of 2019. Masoli’s season-ending ACL injury against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Week 7 had many questioning whether or not Hamilton was on the verge of a decline following their red-hot start to the year.
Evans put all those thoughts to rest, helping the Ticats along to their best win total in franchise history and an undefeated season at home.
He only started 11 games on the season, however, the 26-year-old Tulsa product flashed signs of brilliance, finishing the season with 3,754 yards and 21 touchdowns on the year.
“I think that it’s imperative that you surround yourself with as many great players as possible. Great Dane filled in and did an outstanding job for us. That Jeremiah’s proven, and I know he’s looking forward to coming back,” Steinauer said. “I’m looking forward to the competition at camp, that’s going to be fun to watch. The main thing is, we want Jeremiah to get fully healed, fully healthy and ready to go. That gives him the best chance which will give us the best chance.
“… I think a lot of teams would love to be in our situation; To have both Jeremiah and Dane or quarterbacks of that calibre. I think that’s always what you’re striving for.”
As for who the starter will be heading into the 2020 campaign, that’ll be up to Evans and Masoli. Whoever has the better camp and preseason will be the man trusted to run the offence. Make no mistake though, both will play a big role in the Ticats’ success this coming season.
3. Position battles coming on the defensive side
The Ticats managed to load up on the defensive side of the football in free agency. They were able to maintain their key pieces on the defensive line, re-upping Ja’Gared Davis, Dylan Wynn and Ted Laurent.
As if maintaining one of the scariest fronts in the league wasn’t enough, they brought back three-time divisional All-Star Larry Dean and inked young standout Patrick Levels in the open market to round out their second level.
While Dean is the signing that is near and dear to Hamilton fans, Levels was on the minds of fans on Monday. Levels occupied the SAM linebacker position for the Montreal Alouettes in 2019. He was described as one of the defensive leaders for that young side and should be able to bring the same skill and energy to a veteran-laden Ticats defensive unit.
However, Rico Murray was the man who was at the SAM spot for the Black and Gold last season, and the veteran is a three-time divisional All-Star (2014, 2017, 2018).
“We look at our SAM position as a secondary player, some people label that position as a nickel. We believe in position flexibility in the back end, we believe in that across the board,” Steinauer said. “We feel like the majority of people on our team can play more than one position. So that’s really what I think about that. So, is there a possibility that Rico can move? Absolutely. But that will be determined in camp. You can put a lot of blank pieces in place on paper, but training camps with training camps for.
“It’s trying to put the athletes in the best position where they’re most comfortable and they can play the fastest and, which ultimately will help us.”
4. Where could the Tabbies go National?
Steinauer stuck to his guns when asked about whether he’d consider going with National players at certain positions going into the season.
“I can tell you this: We’re going to put the best 12 to give us the best opportunity to win. And if that happens to be a national, then that’s what we’ll do. That would definitely give us some ratio flexibility,” he said.
The Ticats did use several different positions to start National players in 2019. Tunde Adeleke was the starting safety, while Mike Jones and Sean Thomas-Erlington were used as starters at receiver and running back, respectively.
Hamilton did bring in Don Jackson this off-season, which will give the Tabbies a solid pair of backs that will push each other in camp and cause trouble for opposing defences.
“We made a commitment to be National at running back last year, we made a nice addition in Don Jackson. This year, and you know we’re bringing in some other good competition.”
The offensive line is where most teams hit the ratio and the Tiger-Cats are no exception. In 2019, four of their five starters — Chris Van Zeyl, Brandon Revenberg, Mike Filer and Darius Ciraco — were Nationals, with Ryker Matthews being the lone American on the line.
Matthews headed to market as well and found a new home in BC with the Lions, leaving questions as to who will be his successor at left tackle going forward. While the team could make an addition in the draft, they also have 12 offensive linemen on the roster, with all but one being National.
More than likely, we’ll see the replacement for Matthews come from within.
“When Ryker took over, he got an opportunity, so anytime somebody leaves, that gives an opportunity for somebody else,” Steinauer said. “Could it be a National? I’d never say no to that. I think we are about competition, and the best person for our team, the right fit.”
While Steinauer did touch on the players that were a part of his roster, for the most part, he did also go into a bit of detail about longtime Hamilton pass-catcher Luke Tasker, who remains a free agent.
Tasker has been one of the names most synonymous with the Tiger-Cats organization over the past decade. He’s spent all seven of his CFL campaigns with the team. The 29-year-old was coming off a 2018 season that saw him earn CFL All-Star honours for the first time in his career after putting up 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns in 15 games.
2019 was a completely different year for Tasker, who spent much of the season watching from the sidelines while battling injuries. He did finish with 406 yards and 36 catches on the campaign, however, he only featured in nine games.
“So right now, Luke is a free agent. Not sure which direction we’re going to head with that right now. We had a great conversation with Luke,” Steinauer said. “Luke is one of my favourite people first of all and his family. He’s an outstanding football player; Luke’s battled some injuries. And so I would never rule out Luke and say that he won’t be a Tiger-Cat.
“Luke is one of those veteran players who won’t remain on the street. I think Luke is a lot bigger than just football he’s going to go somewhere where there’s the best fit for him and his family and I respect that a ton.”
As the head coach said, it’s not out of the question that we see No. 17 suit up in Black and Gold in 2020. But the wait when it comes to his signing does leave some doubt. Fans will have to wait and see what he ultimately decides to do for the future.