When Jake Burt makes his Hamilton Tiger-Cats home debut, the eyes of one of the CFL’s greatest tight ends will be among those fixed upon him.
Hamilton took the former Boston College tight end No. 1 in the 2021 CFL draft, making Burt the first tight end taken first overall since 1989.
Although the position has pretty much disappeared from league offences, Ticats offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell plans to play the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Burt at various spots, including tight end.
“He has the size of a traditional tight end, like a Peter Dalla Riva or Herm Harrison but it also sounds like he has many more facets to his game,” said Tony Gabriel, four times the CFL’s top Canadian and its outstanding player in 1978 over an illustrious 11-year career. “I think he’s going to be a big target for Jeremiah Masoli or Dane Evans.
“I also believe he has the right coaches when you look at [Ticats head coach] Orlondo Steinauer and Tommy Condell, I think they’re both innovative. I have season tickets coming for the Ticats and I’m looking forward to seeing him play. I’d like to wish him well to start his career.”
Gabriel won’t be the only former tight end watching Burt. Dalla Riva and Peter Mueller are also curious to see how the Ticats utilize the rookie.
“I always watch what [teams] do, especially receivers or the tight end,” said Dalla Riva. “Even when I played, I watched the tight end all the time just to see how they played and blocked and some of the techniques they used.
“I believe you learn off each other. That’s why you watch film, to see what the other teams do and don’t do.”
Added Mueller: “That [Burt being drafted No. 1] was a surprise I have to admit because the tight end has been a disappearing entity, at least in its truest form.
“Back in my day you had one position, maybe a second, and that was it but players now, the prototype is just faster, stronger and bigger and they’re more versatile and expected to play in all of these different positions. The evolution of the offence sort of necessitates that.”
Burt had 23 catches for 307 yards and two touchdowns over 36 games at Boston College. He spent last season on the New England Patriots’ practice roster before becoming a free agent.
Condell has said he plans to play Burt at H-back, slotback and wide receiver as well as tight end.
Moving players around is nothing new for Condell. He’s had all-star receivers Brandon Banks (112 catches, 1,550 yards, 13 TDs in 2019) and Bralon Addison (95 catches, 1,236 yards, seven TDs) line up at slotback, receiver and even in the backfield.
Addison, a former high-school quarterback, has also taken snaps in Hamilton’s wildcat formation. Burt too played quarterback in high school, which could give Condell another potential wrinkle to consider.
“He’s going to a good team with many veteran leaders who I think can help him,” Gabriel said. “If Jake stays healthy, I’m sure he’ll become a regular in a short amount of time.
“I think he’s got many things going for him. I think he could have a long career.”
Gabriel, 72, of Burlington Ont., played with Hamilton (1971-74) and Ottawa (1975-81), registering 614 catches for 9,832 yards and 69 TDs. An eight-time CFL all-star, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Gabriel was a two-time Grey Cup champion who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
“I was fortunate to be traded in 1975 … because I ended up with two All-American quarterbacks in Condredge Holloway (Tennessee) and Tom Clements (Notre Dame),” Gabriel said. “Both of those quarterbacks looked inside first, then outside for receivers in many of the formations our offensive co-ordinator Tom Dimitroff put together.
“I was asked to do a lot of deeper routes. If Tommy or Condredge were running around, they gave me time to get open on post-corners or posts and I became more of an intermediate receiver, not just a tight end.”
In fact, Dallas Riva said it was Gabriel who changed the tight end position.
“He was a tight end but he went off the line of scrimmage, he went in motion, he did whatever he wanted to do,” Dalla Riva said. “Everyone started using that and it really opened the field up.
“It’s a copycat league, people copied off each other and then it’s also about the personnel you have and are going to get, what you want to draft and the guys you end up getting.”
Dalla Riva, 75, was born in Italy but grew up in Hamilton. He spent his 14-year CFL career with Montreal (1968-81), winning three Grey Cups while registering 450 catches for 6,413 yards and 55 TDs.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Dalla Riva was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1994 and his No. 74 has been retired by the Alouettes.
Mueller, 69, of Toronto, played nine seasons with his hometown team (1973-81), recording 308 catches for 3,826 yards with 13 touchdowns.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Mueller was the Argos’ last full-time tight end as they went to a run-and-shoot offence after he retired.
Even if Burt excels as a tight end, Mueller doesn’t necessarily think it will mark a comeback for the position.
“In my view, there seems to be a lot of interchangeable parts,” he said. “Slotbacks can play tight end, they can line up in the backfield, they can line up as wide receivers, running backs in different formations are out wide.
“You almost must have an athlete who is versatile and can play in any of these places depending on the formation and situation.”