Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ticats give up the gimmicks

No more promotional stunts under new head coach Cortez

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The CFL conducted a series of team preview conference calls in the weeks leading up to training camp. Today's final installment features the Tiger-Cats.

Fans can forget about calling the plays for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this season: New head coach and director of football operations George Cortez won't have any of that nonsense.

Little surprise, but there will be no more online voting that allows fans to vote on what play they want to see run at the start of a game (a laughable stunt the Ticats pulled against the Blue Bombers last October). One play might not mean anything when measured against the entirety of a season, but the optics of the spectacle registered poorly around the CFL.

The promotion undermined former head man Marcel Bellefeuille, and in a business where the top dog on the football side needs to display absolute control over the locker-room, front office shenanigans are not a selling point when searching for a new coach.

"Coach Cortez wasn't willing to sign his contract unless we made sure we weren't letting the fans call the plays anymore," Hamilton president Scott Mitchell kidded with reporters Monday.

As the old saying goes, there's a little truth behind every joke.

Cortez, 61, was brought in this winter to replace Bellefeuille, who wasn't able to reach past the .500 mark (the club finished with a 9-9 record twice) and won just one playoff game in three full seasons. On top of that ho-hum showing, the Ticats never really had a tangible identity under Bellefeuille and the club repeatedly struggled with consistency throughout his tenure.

Cortez should have no problem getting the players' focus: Start with the announcement that training camp will go back to the old-school 'two-a-day' workouts -- an attention-getter if there ever was one.

While he changes the Tiger-Cats' stripes in that fashion, Cortez promises a hard-nosed fast group on the field. These attributes should be shine through on offence, as the club boasts one of the more potent attacks in Canada.

Good-bye quarterback Kevin Glenn and running back Avon Cobourne, hello Henry Burris and Martel Mallett, the CFL's rookie of the year in 2009 (he's been toiling on NFL practice squads the last couple seasons). The soon-to-be-37-year-old Burris is the key piece in this shuffle. He'll need to get past the struggles in Calgary last season and re-focus on being the effective ball distributor he was in 2010, when he was named the CFL's most outstanding player.

Mix in highly-touted Canadian receivers Andy Fantuz and Sam Giguere to the likes of Chris Williams (2011 most outstanding rookie), and Hamilton should have no issues on offence -- even with the explosive Marcus Thigpen taking his talents to the Miami Dolphins.

"You can never keep all the guys who handle the ball happy," Cortez said. "They have to understand that they'll get their opportunity. We have some good weapons there and it gives us an opportunity to spread the ball around."

Defensively, things aren't as set. One area of need for the Tiger-Cats looks to be at the end position, where both Justin Hickman and Stevie Baggs played last year. Hickman, who shard the sack lead in the CFL with Odell Willis in 2011 (13), went to the Indianapolis Colts, while Baggs was released.

The coaches have already penciled in free-agent acquisition Greg Peach for one of those spots, but who takes up the end position at the other side will be determined as camp moves along.

"We signed some guys that probably most people out there wouldn't know about on defence; I know our personnel department is very high on them and we expect big things from them," Cortez said.

"We'll let their actions speak for them when they get here."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Cat comeback

As middling as the Tiger-Cats have been over the last three seasons, they haven't been flat-out terrible. Last year, for example, they were only two wins behind the Bombers and Alouettes in the East Division. Maybe the new voice and the new attitude of head coach George Cortez gets them over the hump:

1. Justin Medlock is in the NFL (Carolina), so Hamilton's kicking game comes to camp under some mystery. Veteran Luca Congi and rookies Josh Maveety and Australian punter Josh Bartel were on the roster as of Monday. Congi played five out of the last six seasons with Saskatchewan (he missed all of 2011 with a knee injury). To help groom the youngsters, the club added former kicker Paul Osbaldison as a special teams assistant coach.

2. Veteran centre Marwan Hage's knee is still on the mend, and no timetable was given by Cortez. The offensive line situation is further troubled by centre Moe Petrus, the Cats' top draft choice in 2011, signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this month. Right now, Petrus won't be available to Hamilton until the fall -- if he returns to Canada at all.

3. The top three 2012 draftees -- LB Frédéric Plesius (10th overall, Laval), OL Carson Rockhill (13th, Calgary) and DL Arnaud Gascon-Nadon (17th, Laval) are returning to school, they say, and not inking deals with the Ticats. Not yet, anyway. If they sign in the CFL, they would have to wait at least two years before checking out the NFL (where the pay stubs are much bigger). Blame the removal of the option window in CFL contracts and the expansion of NFL rosters for the delay, Steeltowners.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2012 $sourceSection0

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