It’s been over a year, but Zach Collaros hasn’t forgotten being traded by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Collaros spent four seasons in Hamilton before being dealt to Saskatchewan on Jan. 3, 2018. And with the Roughriders opening the 2019 CFL season at Tim Hortons Field against the Tiger-Cats on Thursday, a candid Collaros said the game holds added significance to him.
"You want to say it’s just another game, but I’d be lying to you that there wasn’t some kind of significance," Collaros told reporters in Regina this week. "There definitely is.
"I spent a good bulk of my career there and have some great memories."
Collaros, 30, led Hamilton to a Grey Cup appearance in 2014, his first year with the club. He was leading the CFL in passing (3,376 yards), touchdown passes (25) and passer rating (113.7) in 2015 before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Collaros didn’t return to Hamilton’s lineup until Aug. 13, 2016, completing 24-of-30 passes for 331 yards with two TDs and an interception in a 45-38 loss to the B.C. Lions. After the Ticats’ 0-8 start to the ’17 season, then-interim coach June Jones replaced Collaros with Jeremiah Masoli as the club’s starter.
Last season, Masoli was the East Division’s outstanding player after establishing career highs in pass attempts (572), completions (378), yards (5,209), TDs (28), rushing yards (473) and average per carry (7.5 yards).
Collaros started 14 games with Saskatchewan last year, completing 234-of-382 passes (61.3 per cent) for 2,999 yards with nine TDs and 13 interceptions. The Riders (12-6) finished second in the West Division, but Collaros didn’t play in their 23-18 conference semifinal loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers due to injury.
The six-foot, 219-pound Collaros re-signed with Saskatchewan on the opening day of CFL free agency in February, signing a one-year deal.
Adding to Collaros’s anticipation Thursday night is having approximately 45 family and friends attend the game. Collaros is a native of Steubenville, Ohio, and now makes Aurora, Ont., his off-season home after recently getting married.
"It will (be) people coming to the game and seeing them before the game and saying a quick goodbye after it," he said. "When you’ve been at camp for a month or so, I haven’t seen a lot of people so it will be good to see my wife, her family and my family.
"It’s all good."
Not to mention the chance to reconnect on the field with former teammates like Simoni Lawrence, the Ticats’ outspoken and colourful linebacker.
"Me and Simoni used to always yell back and forth to each other in practice," Collaros said with a smile. "It will be fun to be on the other side of him, for sure."
But Lawrence and Co. will have to defend against more than Collaros’s right arm. The Riders’ backfield will feature a potent 1-2 rushing attack in Marcus Thigpen and newcomer William Powell.
Saskatchewan boasted the CFL’s second-rated rushing attack last year (111.9 yards per game) with Thigpen proving to be a big-play option. He ran for 408 yards on 48 carries (8.5-yard average) with four touchdowns and had an eight-yard TD run in the Riders’ 31-20 road win over Hamilton on July 19, 2018.
The five-foot-nine, 195-pound Thigpen is also a special-teams threat returning kicks.
Then there’s the five-foot-eight, 210-pound Powell. He was the CFL’s second-leading rusher last season (1,362 yards, 5.4-yard average, six TDs) with the East Division-champion Ottawa Redblacks.
"It sets up a lot of things if you could run the football," Collaros said. "It dictates to the defence what they can and can’t do in terms of how they can defend the run and then what they can play behind it."
Saskatchewan’s Craig Dickenson, who’ll be making his CFL head-coaching debut, said the Ticats can count on seeing a lot of Thigpen.
"He’s going to be back there returning kicks for us and the offence is planning on using him quite a bit," Dickenson said. "He’ll get his jersey dirty in this game."
Hamilton’s Orlondo Steinauer, who will also be making his CFL head-coaching debut Thursday, acknowledged the issues Saskatchewan’s rushing game presents.
"They both can hit home runs … Powell and Thigpen are both dynamic," Steinauer said. "It does pose some challenges because you’re not just facing one guy.
"But I think it’s basically understanding their strengths and weaknesses and what they’re trying to do with those backs. We’ll prepare and have a plan for both backs."
Lawrence is the lone holdover from Hamilton’s linebacking corps with the off-season departures of Larry Dean and Don Unamba to the Edmonton Eskimos. Veteran Rico Murray, in his second stint with the Ticats, and former Toronto Argonaut Justin Tuggle, will replace Unamba and Dean, respectively.
"You can’t control things you can’t control," Steinauer said. "I’m very pleased with our linebacking corps and Simoni knows the defence inside and out and he’s assumed his role very nicely.
"Again, they’re going to have to jell so we’ll see."
SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS (0-0) at HAMILTON TIGER-CATS (0-0)
Thursday, Tim Hortons Field.
HISTORIC MATCHUP: Both teams will have first-time head coaches in Saskatchewan’s Craig Dickenson and Hamilton’s Orlondo Steinauer. It’s just the fifth time in CFL history that two first-year coaches will make their debut against each other.
LINEUP MOVES: Saskatchewan’s offence will include running back William Powell, who was the CFL’s second-leading rusher with the Ottawa Redblacks. With the off-season departures of Larry Dean and Don Unamba to Edmonton, Simoni Lawrence returns as the lone holdover from Hamilton’s linebacking corps.
SACK ATTACK: Saskatchewan rush end Charleston Hughes had a sack in each game against Hamilton last season and also scored on a 57-yard fumble return in the Riders’ 18-13 home win July 5, 2018.