While every player in the CFL has had to deal with an extended off-season owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, few have had to wait for a return to the field longer than Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
A serious knee injury, which included a torn anterior cruciate ligament, in Week 7 ended Masoli's 2019 season, making room for the rise of backup quarterback Dane Evans. Masoli had to sit and watch as the Ticats rallied to a 15-3 regular-season record under Evans, and again when Hamilton met the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup — a game they ultimately lost, 33-12.
Masoli has earned his starting role for 2021, with Evans again the No. 2, and will make his much-anticipated debut on Thursday at IG Field against those same Bombers. Winnipeg head coach Mike O'Shea is expecting nothing but the best from one of the CFL's top pivots, even if it's been close to two years since he's played a game.
"Jeremiah Masoli is a competitor. He’s had lots of time to recover and lots of time to get his game back to where he wants it to be and I’m sure we’re going to get the best Jeremiah Masoli that’s available," O'Shea told reporters Tuesday. "We always expect the best from our opponents."
Masoli finished the 2019 season playing in six games, where he registered 1,576 passing yards and threw nine touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. He's about as calm as they come for CFL quarterbacks, with Masoli showing most of his personality in the way he plays.
Though not the biggest QB in the league — he stands 5-10 and weighs 215 pounds — Masoli is quick on his feet, capable of evading would-be tacklers and extending plays. He has an accurate arm and one powerful enough to test even the most experienced defensive backs.
"You do have to go back and watch film on him, how he moves, what he likes to do, things like that. Definitely a couple of the beginning games of 2019 and a couple of years before," Bombers safety Brandon Alexander said, when asked to describe the preparation in planning for a player they haven't seen in some time.
"You can prepare as much as you can for that guy but when he gets on the field I expect him to be 100 per cent, I expect him to be Jeremiah Masoli and for him to make plays as he usually does. He works that pocket very well; he knows how to manoeuvre so well and get guys open and buy more time for himself to be able to throw those deeper balls. He’s been out for a minute now, so I expect him to really come back and be Jeremiah Masoli. That’s what we’re preparing for."
Alexander is the undisputed leader of a secondary that has undergone a bit of a makeover from 2019.
The Bombers have replaced experienced defensive backs Winston Rose (NFL) and Marcus Sayles (B.C. Lions) with a pair of rookies in Deatrick Nichols and DeAundre Alford. A season-ending Achilles injury to Mercy Maston in training camp has also led Josh Johnson, a CFL veteran the Bombers signed as a free agent, to take over at strong-side linebacker.
That's a lot of moving pieces in an area of the team that is the last line of defence to Masoli's air attack. Alexander said the biggest thing his group needs to understand with defending Masoli is his ability to extend plays with his feet. You might think a play is over, only for Masoli to slip out of a tackle and zip the ball deep downfield.
"It’s just about continuing on with the play. We can’t turn guys loose," Masoli said. "We can’t deviate from what we’re doing. Once the routes are clear and once they’re set, we’ve got to keep going until we hear a whistle blow. Until then, we play football."
Much like the Bombers, Hamilton boasts a quality, veteran-filled offensive line. They also have a receiver's group that rivals any in the league, highlighted by Brandon Banks, the CFL's reigning most outstanding player. Injuries might affect the overall firepower; prize free-agent addition DeVier Posey has been ruled out of the game and Bralon Addison, who returned to Hamilton after a stint in the NFL in 2020, has yet to practise this week and should be listed as doubtful.
If Masoli struggles to find open targets, that could set up a nice debut for Winnipeg's formidable defensive line. Getting to the quarterback early and often is always the great equalizer to a quarterback with a dangerous arm.
Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat isn't adding any pressure to the D-line because of some inexperience in the secondary. The plan was always to make Masoli feel the pressure and make plays under extreme duress.
"No matter who we have back in the secondary, it always starts up front. That’s always our motto. Things start up front; things go through us," Jeffcoat said.
"We’re always gonna take responsibility of getting to the quarterback, being strong against the offensive line... We carry a lot on our shoulders and make sure that we always handle our business. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, if there’s new guys or what, these young guys are talented and know what they’re doing. They’re gonna come out and play some good ball."
There is always the option that Hamilton employs a two-quarterback system, using Evans as more than simply an emergency option. O'Shea didn't seem too concerned about the idea. After all, Evans, who finished 2019 with 3,754 passing yards and a 21-13 touchdown-interception ratio, has more recent film for the Bombers to study.
"Well, we've seen both, played against both, so we’re ready for both," O'Shea said.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.