April 17, 2024

Milton: What to watch for as Tiger-Cats training camp looms

You don’t need a day planner, or a smart watch, to know that early May rapidly approaches. An east-end parking lot can give you the same information.

For the past few weeks, cars belonging to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ player personnel and coaching staffs–particularly head coach Scott Milanovich—have been resting on the tarmac outside Tim Hortons Field for increasingly-long hours. A columnist arrives at eight in the morning, those cars are already there and their hoods are cold: so they’ve been there a while.

That columnist, assuming he’s put in a pretty impressive day as he tiredly drives  away at 8:30  p.m., notices Milanovich’s car is still in the same spot. Training camp is on the near horizon and coaches hold the work ethic trump card.

Three weeks from tomorrow, Ticats rookies report to the McMaster campus for workouts –a fortnight of them which could alter their professional careers–  beginning the following morning. A couple of days later, Sunday May 12, the rest of the team will be on the field and 13 days after that the Redblacks come into town for the first preseason game. That makes for a lot of stuff to get done and sorted in a very compressed time…so it’s small wonder Milanovich and Co. are burning the midnight oil. And the early morning oil, and the late-afternoon oil.

This is yet another pivotal year for the Tiger-Cats and they want, and need, to get off to a decent start, which has historically not  been their forte outside of a couple of big seasons: the magical 2015 before Zach Collaros was hurt; and the 15-3 franchise record-setter of 2019.

It’s indisputable fact that, despite reaching two Grey Cups over the past four seasons, the Ticats have gone 8-10 each of the last two years, while also losing their first-round playoff games in Montreal. And, last year, they went 0-7 against the top two teams in the East. Not even the most ga-ga supporter would say that’s good enough. Or even close to it.

So, the refurbished Ticats need to hit the ground with their feet moving. They need to demonstrate – to themselves, to their East opponents, and to the fans that they’re back in the winning saddle again. If they can start well they won’t be chasing the season, as they’ve had to do the past three years…and a whole bunch more times in the 21st century. If they can break out early, both in training camp and when the real games begin, Milanovich and his coaches can keep to their blueprints and build and integrate their systems in increments.

As camp approaches like a high tide, it makes football folk not only wonder where the heck winter went, but what they’ll see when the cleats shift from the cupboard to the feet.

Will Bo Levi Mitchell have a bounce-back year? He’s the main question no doubt. He’s the marquee quarterback and this is football, so say no more. Mitchell was hurt twice last year and that was a major component of the season-long Ticat struggles, but even he – and we give him a lot of credit for this—has said he wasn’t good enough when he was healthy. He’ll be motivated, not that the future Hall of Famer has ever not been motivated. From where we sit, his arm looks strong and he’s got a positive attitude.

It’s clear by their off-season that the Ticats want to provide Mitchell with tools, protection and options: re-signing Tim White; and adding a bunch of tall, tall receivers (a stunning nine of them 6-foot-4 or taller, three of them 6-foot-6 or loftier will be in camp); re-committing to powerful back James Butler;  keeping the strong Canadian middle of the offensive line (Brandon Revenberg, David Beard and Coulter Woodmansey) intact. And they’ve got Taylor Powell, with nine starts under his now-sophomore belt, behind him.

This corner will be paying attention to a number of things in training camp, starting and ending with Mitchell’s work, but also a whole bunch of items in the middle.

Signing Canadian linebacker Jordan Williams is huge and changes the ratio, enabling the Ticats to start four Americans in the Front Four if they care to, while also sliding Canadians Mason Bennett, Mo Diallo or Anthony Federico into the rotation for extra homebrew content. They brought in ex-Argos Dewayne Hendrix and Brandon Barlow and their 16 combined sacks to join Casey Sayles in a middle group that should cause whistle-to-whistle havoc. The 2023 Ticats didn’t make life uncomfortable enough for opposing quarterbacks.

We’ll also be watching to see who makes the defensive backfield, and some of that could depend upon punt-and-kick return abilities in the wake of the departure of Tyreik McAllister to the NFL, adding another dimension to roster-depth battles at a couple of positions.

And, while we’re on special teams, here’s something else to think about. With place-kicker Marc Liegghio coming off a great season, the forward steps taken by punter Kaare Vedvik and the continued evolution of Gordon Whyte into one of the league’s premier long-snappers, the Ticats have a solid kicking “operation” right from the start. With everything else that went on, we sometimes forget that by August last season the Ticats had  lost solid  kickers, Seth Small and Bailey Flint, who both walked away because of personal issues.

Finally there’s the issue of leadership with the great Simoni Lawrence, moving up to take an important job in the business department. On offence that falls mainly to Mitchell, but Beard and Revenberg have their hands on the linemen’s wheel and it’s yet to be seen who’ll emerge on defence. Casey Sayles would be a great bet in his second year with the team but there are others who might step forward as they feel more comfortable with their teammates, the city and the systems.

For fans who attend training camp watching on-field leadership evolve is always an interesting, and fun, part of the process. We’ll be watching it too.