For Casey Printers and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, there’s nowhere to go but up.
The Ticats suffered through a dismal ’07 campaign, posting a league-worst 3-15-0 record to miss the CFL playoffs for the third straight year. Printers came to Hamilton midway through last season after being released by the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
Upon signing with Hamilton, Printers, the CFL’s outstanding player in 2004, boldly promised a turnaround in Steeltown. However, there was reason to believe Printers, who in ’04 completed 325-of-494 passes (65.8 per cent) for 5,088 yards and 35 TD strikes en route to leading the B.C. Lions to a Grey Cup berth.
But with precious little practice time, the former Florida A&M star predictably often looked out of sync with his new teammates. The six-foot-one, 218-pound quarterback completed 68-of-133 passes (51.1 per cent success ratio) with a touchdown against four interceptions.
The Ticats are banking that with a full training camp under his belt, Printers and the offence will both be on the same page right from the start of the season.
"He’s made terrific progress," Ticats head coach Charlie Taaffe said recently of his quarterback. "He’s anticipating things better and getting a lot more used to his receivers.
"I think he’s throwing with a lot more confidence."
Hamilton is also banking on Bob O’Billovich’s vast CFL experience to help expedite the rebuilding process. The Ticats hired O’Billovich, a veteran CFL head coach and front-office executive, as their general manager in the off-season.
O’Billovich comes to Hamilton after a successful stint as the B.C. Lions player-personnel director, helping the B.C. club land Printers in 2003. And last year O’Billovich found a former Penn State linebacker named Cameron Wake, who the Lions moved to defensive end and watched him register a league-high 16 sacks en route to being named the league’s top rookie and defensive player.
Unfortunately, for O’Billovich, he will have to wait for his top two picks in this year’s CFL Canadian college draft.
Saskatchewan Huskies safety Dylan Barker, who was selected first overall, opens the season on the nine-game injured list with a broken leg that could force him to miss the season. Speedy Sherbrooke receiver Sam Giguere, selected eighth overall, definitely has a bright CFL future but is presently with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.
Taaffe returns for a second season in Hamilton but the two-time winner of the CFL’s coach of the year award will have two new co-ordinators. Former Saskatchewan assistant Marcel Bellefeuille assumes control of the offence while Denny Creehan takes over as defensive co-ordinator after being fired from that job with Calgary last year..
Bellefeuille will definitely have a solid running game to work with. Jesse Lumsden, a six-foot-two, 226-pound tailback from Burlington, Ont., had a breakout ’07 campaign, rushing for a career-high 743 yards and a stellar 7.6-yard average per carry. He also had 26 catches for 348 yards in a season that was limited to 10 games due to injuries.
However, with the former Hec Crighton Trophy winner leading the way, Hamilton averaged a solid 121 yards rushing per game, second-best in the CFL. A healthy Lumsden will not only anchor the Ticats’ ground game but take some of the onus off Printers to try and kick-start the rushing attack by himself.
O’Billovich dipped into free agency to land veteran receivers Tony Miles and Pat Woodcock after Brock Ralph (team-high 50 catches, 721 yards, three TDs) was dealt to Edmonton and Jason Armstead (46 catches, 618 yards, one TD) was released. Miles (24 catches, 433 yards, four TDs with Toronto) and Woodcock (four catches, 86 yards in three games) battled injuries last season but both are veterans and can provide leadership to a young Ticats’ receiving corps.
Defensively, Hamilton ranked last in yards allowed per game (399), passing yards (305.4), TD passes allowed (36) and fewest sacks recorded (32). The Ticats did sport the CFL’s leading tackler in linebacker Zeke Moreno (114) and Canadian Ray Mariuz, a former McMaster Marauder, figures to start in the linebacking but the team did lose Jojuan Armour (84 tackles) to Calgary.
Defensive end Nautyn-McKay Loescher had a pretty solid first season in Steeltown, finishing fifth in the CFL in sacks with 11. Charlton Keith also provides a decent pass rush, having registered four sacks in the eight games he started after joining the club Sept. 12.
Hamilton’s kicking chores are in the solid hands of sophomore Nick Setta, who led the CFL in scoring with 167 points. He made a league-high 45 field goals in 53 attempts (84.9 per cent) and was fifth overall in punting with a respectable 44-yard average.
But it will be up to Printers and Co. to convert in the red zone and not leave the Ticats having to settle for Setta field goals in 2008.