HAMILTON — Andy Fantuz’s 2017 debut comes at an ideal time for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The veteran slotback will return to the lineup Saturday night when Hamilton (3-9) hosts the Toronto Argonauts (6-7). It’s a pivotal game for both teams as the winner will clinch the season series and improve its playoff chances in the East Division.
Fantuz, 33, missed Hamilton’s first 12 regular-season games recovering from a knee injury suffered last October. The six-foot-four, 218-pound Fantuz was the East Division’s top Canadian in 2016 with a club-record 101 catches for 1,059 yards and five TDs.
But the 33-year-old native of Chatham, Ont., said returning in time for Hamilton’s biggest game of the season was more by chance than a flair for the dramatic.
“It wasn’t by design,” he said Friday. “But (it’s) definitely a hype home game and it’s nice to be against the Argos and (have) so much on the line.
“Nervous isn’t the right word, it’s (being) excited, anxious. I’m looking forward to that first play and get that first hit and then just playing football and hearing the crowd roar and getting a win.”
Veteran running back C.J. Gable also returns to Hamilton’s lineup. He starts ahead of Alex Green, who rushed for 140 yards in last weekend’s 24-23 road win over the B.C. Lions.
Abdul Kanneh also comes off the injured list to start at cornerback.
During his rehabilitation, Fantuz worked in the Ticats’ front office as the club’s co-ordinator of player development. While calling the role “a unique experience,’ Fantuz said his time away from the field made him appreciate playing much more.
“Getting back out there and smiling and joking around with everyone, it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “You love this job and I’m glad to still be able to do it.”
Fantuz joins a Hamilton squad that’s 3-1 under interim coach June Jones. Only Calgary (4-0, league-best 11-1-1 record) has more wins the past four weeks.
“He’s a good football player up here,” Jones said of Fantuz. “His past is the standard for everybody.
“He looks 100 per cent. I told him, ‘If you have any question, it’s on you. There’s no pressure on you to play.’ He said, ‘I feel great,’ and he went through live practice reps so he’s going to go.”
Fantuz will combine with veteran Luke Tasker to give Hamilton two viable inside threats and complement the team’s outside speed. Fantuz’s presence will also give Jeremiah Masoli — the Ticats’ starter over its 3-1 stretch — a big target to look for downfield.
“We’ve had a smaller lineup some of these weeks, it will be nice to have a big body there,” Masoli said. “He (Fantuz) knows the offence in and out even though he hasn’t been there, he’s a real smart guy.
“He has respect of the league out there for a reason: He’s a really good player, a playmaker who catches all the balls.”
East Division-leading Toronto is chasing a third straight win with a new-found ground attack. First-year running back James Wilder Jr. has surpassed the 100-yard rushing plateau the last two games, accumulating a combined 331 yards.
But Toronto’s offence will be without veteran tackle Chris Van Zeyl (foot).
Jones said a balanced offensive attack creates issues for a defence.
“It makes you very conscious of gap control,” he said. “You better have your gaps (covered) and not just tee off on the passer all the time.”
Hamilton is 14-15 all-time at Tim Hortons Field and 1-9 over its last 10 home games. But the Ticats are 5-0 there against Toronto, which has also lost two neutral-site games at the venue.
“I don’t know,” Toronto starter Ricky Ray said of the Argos’ struggles at Tim Hortons Field. “It seems like we’ve played every kind of game — high scoring, low scoring — we just haven’t been able to find a way to win.
“They play well at home … we just haven’t been able to finish there.”
But Ray said the Argos aren’t losing sleep over it.
“It’s not something we do a slide-show presentation on,” he said. “It’s a new team this year and we’re just trying to focus on this game.”
Veteran linebacker Bear Woods, in his first season with Toronto, agreed.
“Well, I’d argue this team is 0-1 there,” he said. “It’s a big game, we look at it like a playoff game.
“I know that’s the type of urgency and intensity both teams are going to show.”
Ray said what matters more to the Argos is ball protection.
“That’s something we do talk about a lot,” he said. “If you win the turnover battle you have a very high (likelihood) of winning the football game so it’s something we’ve got to do.”