Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Jovan Santos-Knox (45) celebrates a fumble recovery during the second half of CFL action against the Calgary Stampeders, in Winnipeg, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. So far during the Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp, it hasn't taken head coach Orlondo Steinauer long to figure out when veteran linebackers Simoni Lawrence and Santos-Knox are on the field together. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Veteran linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox is vying for spot on Hamilton Tiger-Cats roster

Veteran linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox is vying for spot on Hamilton Tiger-Cats roster

It hasn’t taken head coach Orlondo Steinauer long to figure out when veteran linebackers Simoni Lawrence and Jovan Santos-Knox are on the field together at the Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp.

“Well, the energy bounces back and forth real nice,” Steinauer said. “When it comes to the hustle, effort and passion, it’s pretty special to watch.”

Lawrence always makes his presence known. Not only does he lead by example – he had a CFL-high 98 tackles in 2019 and was the East Division’s top defensive player – but Lawrence is also one of the league’s best trash-talkers.

However Santos-Knox said he’s settling in nicely beside Lawrence in Hamilton’s defence.

“It’s just a competitive nature out there being beside Simoni,” Santos-Knox said. “He’s a very competitive guy.

“We’re just going after it trying to get everything to mesh. But it’s been a lot of fun beside him and all of these great players.”

The six-foot-two, 233-pound Santos-Knox signed a one-year deal with Hamilton in February. The 27-year-old American is entering his fourth CFL season having played previously with Winnipeg (2017-18) and Edmonton (2019).

Santos-Knox missed most of 2019 due to injury after recording 82 tackles and six sacks the year before with Winnipeg.

But while Santos-Knox’s CFL experience has helped him in Hamilton, he’s still in his first year with the Ticats and thus learning on the fly.

“I think he’s making great strides,” Steinauer said. “What’s impressed me the most is the person he is, his willingness not to be too caught up in what he’s done before and what has worked for him.

“He has really bought into what we’re doing and what we’re selling and his work ethic is second to none.”

Santos-Knox signed with Winnipeg in 2017 after driving nine hours with his father to a tryout camp in North Carolina. He began his CFL career on special teams before cracking the starting lineup later that year.

But after appearing in just three games with Edmonton in 2019, Santos-Knox opted out of his deal in 2020 after the CFL cancelled its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hamilton’s defence features a number of returnees from the unit that helped the Ticats post a franchise-best 15 regular-season wins in 2019 and reach the Grey Cup.

“It’s been really fun to watch the competition at linebacker,” Steinauer said. “We’ve got some really good ones in our B and C group who’re bringing out the best in Simoni and Jovan also.”

Something Santos-Knox is getting used to is playing behind a veteran Hamilton defensive line that includes all four starter from 2019 in Ja’Gared Davis (team-high 13 sacks), Canadian Ted Laurent (twice CFL all-star), Dylan Wynn (career-best 11 sacks) and Julian Howsare (six sacks).

And then there’s immersing himself in defensive co-ordinator Mark Washington’s playbook.

“I’m learning so much here and at this stage of my career to be saying that is a lot,” Santos-Knox said. “To learn new things every single day is a testament to coach Washington never being satisfied and always raising the bar.

“Coach Washington and I have a good relationship in terms of we’re always talking. I’m getting the defence down, I’m understanding his concepts and what he wants. We just want to execute for him because I know how much he puts into it and we just want to give it back.”

Lawrence anchored a Hamilton defence that in 2019 allowed a CFL-low 17.9 offensive points per game. But after finishing the season ranked third against the run (95 yards per game), the Ticats had few answers in the Grey Cup game for Winnipeg’s ground attack as Canadian Andrew Harris ran for 134 yards and scored two TDs in securing game MVP and top Canadian honours.

Santos-Knox said the Ticats are well aware other teams will undoubtedly test their run defence in 2021.

“We welcome it, we embrace it and we’re up for the challenge,” he said. “As a defence you take pride in stopping the run … stop the run first and everything follows.”

Especially when it would mean getting the ball more often for a Hamilton offence that in 2019 led the CFL in offensive points (28.2 per game) and TDs (57).

“We want to put them in the best position,” Santos-Knox said. “But at the same time we know if we’re able to get some points on the board ourselves it can dramatically change the game in our favour.

“Everyday we’re harping on disruption, takeaways. As a middle linebacker, just being the anchor of it all, I’ve see guys flying around left and right and you just want to do your part and not let anybody down.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

CFL