The Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ revamped receiving corps will have more to learn in training camp this summer than new head coach George Cortez’s offence.
They’ll also have to develop a sense of patience.
Hamilton spent a busy off-season shoring up its offence, acquiring all-star quarterback Henry Burris from Calgary while also dipping into free agency to sign versatile running back Martell Mallett and veteran slotback Andy Fantuz. As well, 2008 first-round draft pick Sam Giguere joined the club after three seasons on the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants’ practice squads to boost a receiving corps that features veteran slotback Dave Stala and promising youngsters Chris Williams, Aaron Kelly and Bakari Grant.
So while this would give Burris no shortage of options in passing situations, it also presents Burris with the added challenge of distributing the football to keep all of his receivers happy. That’s something Cortez says is virtually impossible.
“You never keep all the guys that handle the ball happy,” Cortez said Monday during a CFL conference call. “They have to understand they’ll get their opportunities, there’s only one ball and only one guy can have it on any given play.
“But we in the past have had very good players playing together and they’ve always managed to co-exist because they understand one of the reasons they can be successful is that other good players at other positions take the emphasis off of the defence being able to take away a guy. They have to take away more than one guy.
“Yes, I think we have some good weapons there and I think it gives us an opportunity to be able to spread the ball.”
Fortunately for Hamilton, Burris is well versed in dealing with the needs of receivers. The 13-year CFL veteran spearheaded an offence in Calgary that featured such receiving stalwarts as Nik Lewis, Romby Bryant and Ken-Yon Rambo along with youngster Johnny Forzani and Canadian-born tailback Jon Cornish emerging as a dual threat out of the backfield.
Mallett certainly gives Hamilton a similar threat. The six-foot, 190-pound Mallett was the CFL’s top rookie in 2009 after rushing for 1,280 yards with B.C. while also registering 43 catches for 342 yards before signing with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. When Mallett signed with the Ticats, they released veteran tailback Avon Cobourne.
Burris will turn 37 next week but in 2010 was the CFL’s outstanding player when he threw for over 4,900 yards with 38 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. And even last year when he lost the starting job in Calgary to Drew Tate, Burris still completed nearly 64 per cent of his passes and had more TDs (20) than interceptions (12).
The six-foot-one, 190-pound Burris can also use his legs to make plays and sports a career 6.1-yard rushing average with 55 TDs but has also had 91 career fumbles. But Burris does have the benefit of familiarity with Cortez, who served as Calgary’s offensive co-ordinator from 2007 to ‘09.
So it’s no surprise that when Hamilton officially opens training camp this weekend, Burris will be the club’s starter.
“He will be there until someone beats him out,” Cortez said of Burris. “That’s the nature of sports.”
Fantuz was also a marquee off-season acquisition. The CFL’s top Canadian in 2010 signed a four-year deal with Hamilton reportedly worth $190,000 annually spending the first six years of his career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Fantuz had 289 receptions for 4,311 yards and 23 touchdowns with Saskatchewan and was named the CFL’s top Canadian in 2010 after posting 87 catches for 1,380 yards and six TDs. The 28-year-old native of Chatham, Ont., missed the first half of last season while attending the Chicago Bears camp before being released but only appeared in four games with the Riders due to an ankle injury.
But again, Cortez has some familiarity with Fantuz, spending the ’06 season as Saskatchewan’s offensive co-ordinator when Fantuz was a CFL rookie.
Hamilton hasn’t won the Grey Cup since ‘99 however has been to the CFL playoffs the last three years. Despite posting a dismal 8-10 regular-season record last year, the Ticats reached the East Division final before losing 19-3 to Winnipeg, which cost head coach Marcel Bellefeuille his job.
Hamilton announced Monday that former kicker Paul Osbaldiston will be the club’s assistant special-teams coach. Osbaldiston spent 18 seasons with the Ticats and is their all-time leader in scoring (2,856 points) and field goals (655). He worked with the club’s kickers as a consultant in 2011.
And Osbaldiston will have a project to work with in camp as Hamilton signed Australian punter Josh Bartel, a former Australian rules football player who last year tried out with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
While Hamilton’s offence would seem to have no shortage of playmakers, there are questions about the offensive line. Right guard Simeon Rottier, the first player taken in 2009, signed with Edmonton in the off-season while veteran centre Marwan Hage continues to recover from a knee injury. Backup Mark Dewit, who replaced an injured Hage late last season, went to Calgary along with veteran quarterback Kevin Glenn in the Burris deal.
Hamilton also has questions on its defensive line with ends Justin Hickman (NFL’s Indianapolis Colts) and Stevie Baggs (released) both gone.
“Obviously whether you can run the ball, whether you can protect the quarterback, whether or not you can put pressure on the quarterback all starts with the fronts on both sides,” Cortez said. “Is it overwhelming us thinking about the lines? No.
“But it is an important part of what’s going to be going on in training camp.”
The 2012 season will also be Hamilton’s last at Ivor Wynne Stadium. After the club’s final home game there, a new multi-purpose facility will be built in time for the 2014 CFL season.
Where the Ticats will play their home games in 2013 hasn’t yet been announced but president Scott Mitchell said the CFL hasn’t promised Hamilton a Grey Cup game at the new stadium in its first two years of existence. The city last hosted a Grey Cup at Ivor Wynne in 1996.
“No,” Mitchell said. “There certainly have been no guarantees to that end.’
This year’s Grey Cup — the 100th anniversary of the game — will be held at Rogers Centre in Toronto while the 2013 contest will be played in Regina. The 2014 contest is expected to be played in Ottawa if the CFL successfully returns to the Canadian capital.