Andy Fantuz can’t wait to play against the CFL team he called his own for six years.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats receiver kicks off the regular season with his new team against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the team he left in the off-season.
Fantuz said he isn’t feeling nervous about the encounter, only anticipation about starting the season.
“It’s mostly excitement,” he said about the game at Ivor Wynne Stadium at which he’s expecting at least 150 of his own personal friends and family to attend.
“More just to get back on the field and start the CFL season. It’s felt like it’s been an extra-long off-season for myself and it would be nice to see all the guys before the game, but once we come back out from warm up it’ll be all business.”
The 28-year-old from Chatham, Ont., which is only a couple hours drive from Hamilton, had a career year with Saskatchewan in 2010 when he was named the league’s most outstanding Canadian with 87 receptions for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns.
He headed to the NFL in 2011 where he attended Chicago Bears training camp, but was waived in September. He returned to Saskatchewan and played four games before going out with an ankle injury.
Fantuz admits there’s been a lot of “background noise” since he came to Hamilton as he’s tried to get to know the city, the fans and the team, but he’s tried to stay focused.
He’s not about to shy away from the inherent pressure that the first game will bring as the fans look closely to see what difference he can make on a team that has struggled for years.
The Ticats, who haven’t won a Grey Cup since 1999 and have been mediocre for a decade, ended 2011 with an 8-10 record and lost the East Division final. The front office responded by bringing in a new head coach in George Cortez, a new starting quarterback in Henry Burris and Fantuz, among some of the bigger roster changes.
“This is what we play for,” Fantuz said. “We worked all month in training camp and practice. We’ve done all the hard labour, now it’s time to go and have some fun.”
Should the Riders’ defence also focus on Fantuz, however, Burris has many other options, including last year’s CFL outstanding rookie Chris Williams, veteran Dave Stala and 2008 first-round draft pick Sam Giguere who has returned from the NFL.
“If the defence presents a defence that doesn’t allow us to get the ball to (Fantuz) I’m not going to squeeze the ball in there,” said Burris, who will be making his debut with the Ticats after being traded from Calgary in the off-season.
“I’m going to make good decisions. If they don’t respect the fact that I’m using my feet I’m going to have to use that as well. I’m going to manage my game.”
Saskatchewan’s rookie head coach Corey Chamblin — who was the Ticats’ defensive co-ordinator last year — said Fantuz may be a great receiver, but the Roughriders will be focused on Burris.
“Right now, the key to their offence is going to be Henry Burris,” said Chamblin. “He’s a dual threat like Darian (Durant, the Roughriders’ starting pivot) in that he can throw the ball and he can run. So you really want to get to the quarterback and we have some (defensive ends) that can cover.”
That includes Odell Willis, a defensive end who was acquired from Winnipeg and was tied for the league lead last year with 13 sacks.
Saskatchewan begins the season much like the Ticats, looking to turn the ship around after a 5-13 record last year. Chamblin is careful to say that he is building a team, not rebuilding seeing as he wasn’t around last year.
“I’m not really into last year as far as what it was,” he said. “This is our first time together and we expect to be successful.”