HAMILTON — Training camp might be a necessary evil for most veteran CFL players, but it sustains Simoni Lawrence.
“You get free food, you get to hit other guys all the time and you get to play football every day,” said the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ gregarious linebacker. “This is what I like to do, I like to eat and I like to play football so I love camp.
“If I wasn’t doing this I’d probably be home trying to do this.”
It’s a formula that obviously works for the 28-year-old native of Upper Darby, Pa.
In 2015, Lawrence was the East Division’s top defensive player and a CFL all-star after registering 78 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions. The six-foot-one, 235-pound Lawrence had a career-best 89 tackles last season with four sacks and an interception, earning a two-year contract extension in January.
But this year’s camp is different for Lawrence and the Ticats’ defence. Leading the unit is Jeff Reinebold, Hamilton’s former special-teams/linebackers coach who was promoted to defensive co-ordinator after Orlondo Steinauer left to take a similar post at Fresno State.
Hamilton fielded strong defences over Steinauer’s four-year tenure,. However, the 59-year-old Reinebold has over 30 years of coaching experience with six different teams in Canada, serving as a defensive co-ordinator with Edmonton (1995), B.C. (1996) and Montreal (2012).
“This was a turn-key operation,” Reinebold said. “The hardest thing when you come into a new program is having to create a culture … well, that culture was already here and I was a part of it so, really, it’s changing roles, it’s like taking a different seat in the classroom.
“I’m not Orlando and I can’t try to be because you can’t kid players, they know. I have to do the job that’s required within my personality but always with the mindset the only thing that matters is the team, so everything we do is based upon what’s best for the team.”
Reinebold will have plenty of veteran savvy on his unit with the return of starting defensive linemen Ted Laurent, John Chick and Adrian Tracy. Lawrence will again combine with Larry Dean at linebacker while veteran safety Craig Butler — who missed last season with a knee injury — is expected to rejoin a secondary that includes versatile Courtney Stephen and former all-star Emmanuel Davis.
Simoni gushes when speaking about Steinauer, but won’t compare him to Reinebold or discuss how their defensive philosophies differ.
“I try not to compare the two at all because I’m fully committed to Jeff and his system and everything that’s going on now,” Lawrence said. “Coach O was a great coach and it’s well documented … but I don’t even think about it (comparisons).”
Instead, Lawrence’s concentrating on doing what he can to ensure Hamilton has a strong start to the ’17 season. The Ticats finished second in the East Division last year but at 7-11 they endured their first losing season since head coach/GM Kent Austin’s arrival in 2013.
Hamilton will kick off its exhibition season Thursday night visiting the Grey Cup-champion Ottawa Redblacks. The Ticats open the regular season in Toronto against the arch-rival Argonauts on June 25.
“It’s super important to get off to a great start and I feel like we’re doing everything we can to do that,” Lawrence said. “Our offence looks amazing, they’re carving things up.
“Our defence is coming along and is getting great. We’re starting to understand where Jeff is going with the vision and it’s amazing. It’s going to be a great season.”
Lawrence has enjoyed plenty of individual success since joining the Ticats in 2013 and played in consecutive Grey Cup contests (2013-14). But he has yet to hoist the hallowed trophy and give Hamilton its first championship since ’99.
“I just want to win the Grey Cup,” said Lawrence. “Whatever gives us the best chance to win the Grey Cup is what I want to do.”