Hamilton Tiger-Cats linebacker Simoni Lawrence (21) tackles Edmonton Eskimos wide receiver DaVaris Daniels (80) during first half CFL East Final football action in Hamilton, Ont., on November 17, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Veteran Simoni Lawrence and Hamilton Tiger-Cats say 2021 is a new ball game

Veteran Simoni Lawrence and Hamilton Tiger-Cats say 2021 is a new ball game

Veteran linebacker Simoni Lawrence and head coach Orlondo Steinauer don’t see the Hamilton Tiger-Cats being burdened by the weight of expectation in 2021.

After cancelling the 2020 campaign due to the pandemic, the CFL resumes play Aug. 5 with a 14-game regular season. Hamilton played in the league’s last showcase, losing 33-12 to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 2019 Grey Cup game.

That defeat tarnished a stellar ‘19 campaign for Hamilton. The Ticats won a franchise-record 15 regular-season games while Lawrence was named the East Division’s top defensive player (league-high 98 tackles) and Steinauer the CFL’s coach of the year.

And with Hamilton returning most of the players that led the franchise in 2019, many have the Ticats finishing atop the East and contending for the Grey Cup again. Capping the ‘21 season with the team’s first championship since 1999 would be huge considering Hamilton is hosting the ‘21 Grey Cup on Dec. 12 at Tim Hortons Field.

“I feel like with any job like this, you’re going to have pressure,” Lawrence said during a video conference Monday. “This is a high-performance business and that’s just the way it is.

“I feel like with the culture we have here, we just take everything one practice at a time, one game at a time. It’s hard not to see the Grey Cup in Hamilton but I think our main focus is going to be every day, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 then game day … until we get the opportunity to get a shot at the Grey Cup. We understand what happened in 2019. I feel like we’re coming in here to a fresh 2021 season and just try to win the Grey Cup in Hamilton.”

In Steinauer’s mind, the 2019 season is a very, very distant memory.

“That’s gone,” he said. “It would be gone had the result been something different.

“It’s a new year. I’m looking forward to Saturday (opening of training camp) … I think everybody just wants to see football and that’s what we’re looking forward to. Everything is about looking in the windshield at this point, not the rear-view mirror.”

When asked what he’s looking forward to the most Saturday, Steinauer struggled to find the right words.

“The energy,” he said. “You see, I can’t even put it into words, you just feel it.

“Obviously I’m looking forward to the grind and work of practice but there’s just something about the energy of training camp and seeing everybody out there in the prime of their life and football career.”

The most intriguing battle during training camp will be at quarterback between veterans Jeremiah Masoli and Dane Evans. The 32-year-old Masoli opened 2019 as Hamilton’s starter and led the club to a 4-1 start before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

The Ticats barely skipped a beat with the 27-year-old Evans, who completed 298-of-413 passes (72.2 percent) for 3,754 yards with 21 TDs and 13 interceptions. Twice Evans threw for more than 400 yards, including a career-best 452 yards in a 33-12 win over Ottawa.

In January, Masoli signed a one-year contract extension that reportedly included a $125,000 bonus. However Steinauer said that won’t figure in deciding Hamilton’s starter this season.

“It’s going to be a competition, that’s just what it’s going to be and they’re aware of that,” he said. “I think what’s awesome about them … is they’re going to compete (but) they’re each other’s best supporter and this isn’t lip service.

“If you sit down and talk to them, you’re going to find the same answers.”

As for how Hamilton will use Masoli and Evans, Steinauer is leaving every option on the table.

“We’re going to do whatever gives us the best chance to win,” he said. “That’s the most honest answer I can give you.

“There’s always a possibility to use both, there’s a possibility we’ll use one the whole time. That’s just where we’re taking it. We look at it like this, to be honest with you. You bring in competition everywhere else, it’s just not as common at the quarterback position.”

Whoever lines up under centre will have a receiving corps anchored by CFL MVP Brandon Banks (112 catches, 1,550 yards, 13 TDs in 2019). Bralon Addison (95 catches, 1,236 yards, seven TDs in 2019) also re-signed with Hamilton last December after spending time in 2020 with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.

Hamilton will have some holes to fill with the off-season retirements of running back C.J. Gable and defensive backs Courtney Stephen, Rico Murray and Delvin Breaux. Also, Canadian Lirim Hajrullahu, who served as the Ticats kicker/punter in 2019, is no longer with the club.

“Our identity? We’ll see,” Steinauer said. “I’d love to sit here and say, ‘Hey we’re going air it out. We’re going to put up points. We’re going to shut people out.’ Those are all guesses.

“Every year is different and that’s why I’m excited to go to work. Right now, I don’t know what we’re going to be in 2021. I know what I want it to be and what we want it to be but it’s a guess right now.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press