The change of scenery has been invigorating for veteran CFL quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.
The 33-year-old Texan participated in his first on-field workout Thursday at the Hamilton Tiger-Cats rookie camp at Ron Joyce Stadium. Mitchell played his first 10 CFL seasons with Calgary before signing a three-year deal with the Ticats, who had acquired his rights from the Stampeders.
“It’s been amazing,” Mitchell said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t say it’s been a refresh because I love this game and always love being out here but there’s a different motivation when you have to learn something new.
“I think it’s tough when you go into the same camp (with the) same playbook year after year after year. The small things become a little less fun and I think that’s a bad thing . . . you’ve got to make all of the small things fun, make them easy, make them basic again and always go to it. You’ve got to have fun with it.”
Mitchell joined Calgary in 2012 and became its starter in 2014. He led the franchise to four Grey Cup berths (winning in 2014 and ‘18) while capturing the CFL’s top player award in 2016 and ‘18.
Mitchell started 117-of-165 games with Calgary, completing 2,496 of 3,866 passes (64.6 per cent) for 32,541 yards with 188 touchdowns and 89 interceptions. Over his first five seasons as the starter, the six-foot-two, 190-pound Mitchell missed just one regular-season game.
But injuries in 2019 and ‘21 limited Mitchell to 11 starts each season. And last year, the native of Katy, Texas, lost his starting job to youngster Jake Maier, who signed an extension through 2024 with Calgary during the ‘22 campaign.
Hamilton (8-10) finished third in the East Division last season, Dane Evans’ first as the club’s No. 1 quarterback. Evans, who was the Ticats’ starter in the 2019 and ‘21 Grey Cups, won six of his 14 regular-season starts and led the CFL in interceptions (16), fumbles (eight) and fumbles lost (seven).
Hamilton ended its season by losing 28-17 to the Montreal Alouettes in the East Division semi-final. Evans was released during the off-season and signed with the B.C. Lions.
Hamilton will host the ‘23 Grey Cup on Nov. 19 at Tim Hortons Field. The Ticats haven’t won a CFL title since 1999.
“Your goal is Grey Cup, no matter what,” Mitchell said. “You might feel a little bit more guilt or a shot to the pride when you’re not playing at your stadium in the Grey Cup on that day.
“But regardless, man, we’ve got to go out and win the first game, then try and win the second. We’ve got to try to get to the dance and once we get to the dance, we’ll worry about the Grey Cup.”
Hamilton will formally begin training camp Sunday when all veteran players report for their first workout. But Mitchell was enjoying his time Thursday with the rookies.
“These guys are excited, they’re fun to be around,” he said. “Young guys are obviously hungry to make the team but they’re also hungry to learn.
“Yeah, they’ve played football all of their entire lives and fundamentals will always get you there but it’s understanding the process, the way we do things and how the CFL game is played. That’s where you get to be that coach, that teacher and have fun doing it again.”
Mitchell won’t be the lone new face on Hamilton’s offence in 2023. The club added Joel Figueora, a six-foot-six, 320-pound offensive tackle, running back James Butler (1,060 rushing yards last year with B.C.) and Duke Williams, a six foot three, 225-pound veteran receiver, in free agency.
Tommy Condell, Hamilton’s offensive co-ordinator, said the acquisition of Figueroa, Butler and Williams weren’t by accident. Even in the pass-happy CFL, the run game remains important.
“We’re going to have to be able to play a physical brand of football,” Condell said. “We’ll have to be able to do that early, middle and late.”
A fact not lost upon Mitchell.
“You can’t keep going back to the same well over and over and over,” he said. “If the team is going to give us the run game, we’ve got to take it and we’ve got to be efficient at it.
“If they’re going to give us some passes, we’ve got to take it and be efficient at it. We just never know when those moments are going to be so you’ve just got to be ready for them and hit it when it’s there.”
Mitchell and Condell agree it will take both of them time to get acclimated with one another and understand what Mitchell’s strengths will be within the Hamilton’s offence. But Condell said Mitchell’s experience and success (he has a 90-25-2 regular-season record as a CFL starter) are huge factors that work in both sides’ favour.
“I think what’s great about seeing him out here is his level of control of everything and just the aura he brings,” Condell said. “The thing that’s great about Bo is he’s very knowledgeable, very intelligent but he’s also willing to learn and do anything he can to be able to look at things in a different light.”