Henry Burris isn’t shedding a tear about not having to worry when the Hammer will fall Sunday afternoon in the East Division final.
The Toronto Argonauts will be without their defensive leader when they host Burris and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Rogers Centre. Middle linebacker Robert McCune, whose 99 tackles were second-most in the CFL this season, won’t play due because of a shoulder injury.
“He’s a leader of that defence, he’s the guy making the calls to get his teammates in the right positions,” Burris said Saturday. “The fact big Mac isn’t back there, I mean, shoot, I don’t have to worry about his big tail hitting me.
“But I know they’re going to put another good player in his place. We just have to make sure we make the adjustments and be ready to go.”
Rookie Shane Horton starts in McCune’s place with some big shoes to fill. The six-foot, 235-pound McCune — nicknamed Hammer — is a physical specimen and force inside and helped Toronto capture the 100th Grey Cup game last year.
McCune, 34, also has a wealth of pro experience. He spent five seasons in the NFL before joining the Stampeders in 2010 and signing with Toronto prior to last year.
“Hammer knows how to win,” Horton said. “He brings speed and power and I feel those are the things I can bring as well.
“(McCune’s absence) is a setback because he’s such a contributor to our team more than just on defence. But I’m ready to play, I’m prepared.”
Burris and McCune were workout partners as teammates in Calgary (2010-’11) and Burris said McCune certainly knew his way around a gym.
“He’s a freak,” Burris said. “I’ve seen him put four plates on both sides on the bench press (405 pounds) and just rep out and go crazy, then get up and walk over and start doing deadlifts.
“My thing is if I have one of the biggest, strongest, most intimidating guys in the league as a teammate, I want to understand how he trains during the season. If I’m able to put that repertoire in my game, it’s going to help keep me healthy and battle tested for when it becomes a physical game. I learned from the best.”
Toronto faces Hamilton in the East final for the first time since ’86 with suggestions more than 40,000 spectators will be on hand. The Ticats (10-8) won the season series 2-1 while Toronto (11-7) was 4-5 at Rogers Centre, the first team in CFL history to finish atop a division with a losing home record.
Hamilton comes in having won 10 of its last 14 games.
“You want to be playing well going into the playoffs,” Hamilton coach Kent Austin said. “If playing well equals momentum then I guess you could give it that definiton.
“We just want to play well and try to be healthy at the end of the season and I think we’ve accomplished that.”
But Austin said McCune’s absence won’t force the Ticats to immediately change their gameplan.
“You’ll see how the game unfolds in front of you, we’ll make our adjustments and they’ll make theirs,” Austin said. “It will be the game within the game.”
Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich said McCune will be on the sidelines and available for both Horton and Canadian backup Jason Pottinger.
“A lot of what Hammer brings to the table, in addition to his physical skills, is leadership and hopefully he’ll still be able to provide that for us,” Milanovich said. “Pottinger and Shane Horton are both very talented players, both have had some reps in that spot so I think we’re very comfortable those guys will play well in his place.”
Defensive back Jalil Carter also won’t play due to injury, giving Neiko Thorpe the start. Thorpe was carted off the field in Toronto’s 36-21 win over Winnipeg on Oct. 24 with a head injury but later released from hospital after tests were negative.
Burris is also familiar with Argos defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones, who held that post with Calgary from 2008-’11. Burris said Jones has earned his reputation as an imaginative playcaller honestly and looks for player who can execute his gameplans.
“He brings in guys who can play multiple positions,” Burris said. “Knowing Jonesy, no, they’re not going to change what they do.
“He believes in what he does, he believes in the personnel he has. We’re going to have to be ready for a little bit of everything.”
Newcomer Aaron Maybin will make his second straight start at defensive end for Toronto. The former NFL first-round pick had two tackles in his CFL debut, the Argos’ 23-20 loss to Montreal on Nov. 1.
“He shows a motor, great athletic ability, can play the 50-50 defensive end where he can play the run and still play the quarterback,” Milanovich said. “Hopefully he can get some pressure on Henry and their quarterbacks and make life uncomfortable for them back there.”
Both defences will face major challenges stopping potent offences led by veteran quarterbacks.
Burris, 38, was the CFL’s top passer this season. But Austin also had no hesitation sending youngsters Dan LeFevour and Jeremiah Masoli into games to run effective Wildcat-type packages.
LeFevour had a CFL playoff-record 18 carries in last weekend’s 19-16 East semifinal win over Montreal, including the game-winning two-yard TD run.
Toronto’s offence is led by Ricky Ray, who had a CFL-record 77.2 per cent completion average in 10 starts and threw just two interceptions. Although tailback Chad Kackert — last year’s Grey Cup MVP — won’t play, the Argos’ offence is quarterback-driven as backup Zach Collaros led the team to a 4-2 record while Ray recovered from a shoulder injury.
Despite numerous head-to-head matchups in the West Division, Ray and Burris meet in a division final for the first time.
Milanovich said LeFevour’s skillset presents a defence with the challenge of having to prepare for two quarterbacks when facing Hamilton.
“One offence with Henry Burris is enough,” Milanovich said. “When you start adding the Wildcat-type of thing to it, it makes it more difficult but I think our guys are prepared well.”