The path to becoming the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ leading receiver has certainly been a long one for Jaelon Acklin.
In 2018, the 26-year-old American was released by the Baltimore Ravens during training camp after signing as an undrafted free agent. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Acklin signed with Hamilton in 2019 after impressing at a free-agent camp in Buffalo, N.Y.
Acklin began the 2019 campaign on the practice roster before replacing an injured Luke Tasker and making his CFL debut June 22. Acklin had five catches for 59 yards in a 64-14 win over the Toronto Argonauts and has been on the roster ever since.
“I’m not shocked because most players in this league if they have ability, and I’m talking receivers, all you can really give them is opportunity,” Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer said. “Jaelon is one of those players who when you’ve given him opportunity, he’s risen up and it doesn’t always happen.
“He’s a guy who was at an open tryout in Buffalo and he just kept catching the football. He was somebody we definitely had our eye on and a guy who earned his way to training camp so he’s kind of done it the hard way.”
Acklin finished his first CFL season with 58 catches for 708 yards with three TDs. Hamilton’s top rookie nominee capped his campaign with five receptions for a team-high 88 yards in the Ticats’ 33-12 Grey Cup loss to Winnipeg.
This year, with veteran receivers Brandon Banks (2019 CFL MVP) and Bralon Addison battling injuries, Acklin has been one of the few constants on Hamilton’s offence. And through nine games, he’s the Ticats leader in catches (34) and receiving yards (443) and is tied for the team lead in TD grabs (two).
“I think he’s a lot tougher than what people give him credit for,” Steinauer said. “He’s a tough guy, he competes, he loves competition.
“We’ve moved him [from wide receiver to slotback] and he hasn’t really missed a beat and I think he’s an ultimate team guy ... I really don’t have enough great things to say about him and I think he’d be the first one to tell you that he’s just scratching the surface, that he wants to get a lot better.”
Predictably, Acklin said he’s loving his life in the CFL, but not nearly as much as his mother, Tina.
“I’d say the No. 1 thing is my mom loves it the most so that’s why I like it so much,” he said. “She says she enjoys watching it way more.
“I’m very thankful for the CFL because my mom likes it and they gave me a chance to keep playing football.”
But Acklin said his mother’s appreciation of Canadian football isn’t based solely upon the offensive and wide-open nature of the game.
“Yeah, because they throw me the ball, I guess, is what she says,” Acklin said with a chuckle.
While Hamilton’s receiving corps has endured injuries, so have the team’s quarterbacks as Jeremiah Masoli, Dane Evans and Dave Watford have all been under centre this year.
“I trust all the guys but I’d be lying if I told you it’s not different,” Acklin said. “But we have the guys in the locker room, no matter who’s back there – even if it’s Bralon Addison at quarterback – I think we can get the job done.”
It’s been a tough season for Hamilton (4-5), which lost only three regular-season contests in 2019. The Ticats are third in the East Division behind Toronto (6-3) and Montreal (5-4).
And a Hamilton offence that was the CFL’s most potent two years ago is ranked seventh in offensive points (17.2 per game) and eighth in net offence (281 yards) and passing yards (216.3). It has also allowed 29 sacks (second-most).
And after registering 11 straight home wins, Hamilton has lost its past two contests at Tim Hortons Field to Montreal and Toronto, respectively. What’s more, the Ticats took leads of 14 and 12 points, respectively, into the fourth quarter of each contest.
If there’s a positive, Hamilton’s offence rolled up 470 total yards in its 24-23 loss to Toronto on Oct. 11 and Masoli finished 24-of-33 passing for 363 yards and two TDs. The Ticats return to action Saturday night hosting the Ottawa Redblacks (2-8).
“We have to find a way that once we get inside the 20 to make a play,” Acklin said. “I know against Montreal they threw one up to me and I didn’t make a play so I lost sleep over that.
“We just have to figure out a way to start scoring points, we can’t just move the ball all the way down the field. That’s good but we’ve got to start putting sixes [TDs] up on the board.”