HAMILTON — The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are now Dane Evans' team.
The affable quarterback begins his fourth campaign with Hamilton, but first as its starter. Evans shared No. 1 duties with veteran Jeremiah Masoli the previous two seasons, but Masoli is now with the Ottawa Redblacks after being released by the Ticats when Evans bypassed free agency to sign a two-year extension with the club.
"I've always prepared the same way, I feel like I always approached it as 'the guy,'" Evans said. "So for me, nothing has changed other than everyone else is now telling me I'm the guy.
"It's been the same for me always."
Evans began his CFL tenure with Hamilton in 2018, and he and Masoli gave the franchise the best of both worlds. With two bona fide starters in tow, the Ticats have made two straight Grey Cup appearances, although both resulted in heartbreaking losses to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Evans was Hamilton's starter in both championship contests. He relieved Masoli in the ‘21 East Division final, finishing 16-of-16 passing for 249 yards and a touchdown while rushing for a pair of fourth-quarter TDs to rally the Ticats to a 27-19 road win over the Toronto Argonauts.
Evans started Hamilton's 33-25 overtime Grey Cup loss to Winnipeg, leaving in the second quarter with a neck injury. Masoli guided the Ticats to a 22-10 fourth-quarter lead but they needed Michael Domagala’s 13-yard field goal into a stiff wind at 19:54 to force the extra session.
Zach Collaros’s 13-yard TD strike to Darvin Adams and two-point conversion to Rasheed Bailey put the Bombers ahead 33-25. Kyries Wilson cemented the victory by intercepting Masoli on the Ticats’ possession, to the dismay of the partisan Tim Hortons Field gathering.
Hamilton’s decision to re-sign Evans wasn’t surprising. He is five years Masoli’s junior and posted a 12-6 record as a starter, completing 393-of-562 passes (70 per cent) for 4,924 yards with 29 TDs and 18 interceptions.
Hamilton signed veteran Matthew Shiltz in free agency as Evans' backup this off-season. Shiltz spent the four previous seasons with Montreal.
Masoli wasn't Hamilton's lone off-season loss. Shawn Burke, who spent nearly 15 years in the club's front office, became Ottawa's general manager and signed Canadian offensive lineman Darius Ciraco and American receiver Jaelon Acklin — both former Ticats starters — in free agency.
The Ticats and veteran receiver Brandon Banks, the CFL's outstanding player in 2019, also mutually parted ways. Banks signed as a free agent with the archrival Toronto Argonauts.
Veteran Bralon Addison is expected to anchor Hamilton's receiving corps. Addison had a stellar '19 season (95 receptions, 1,236 yards, seven TDs) but was limited to just three games (18 catches, 231 yards) last year due to injury.
Canadian receiver Lemar Durant, who signed with Hamilton as a free agent following six seasons with the B.C. Lions and Calgary Stampeders, opens the year on the six-game injured list.
Hamilton's defence again appears strong.
The Ticats added veteran defensive lineman Micah Johnson to join a front that includes returning tackles Dylan Wynn and Canadian Ted Laurent and end Julian Howsare. Simoni Lawrence, the East Division's top defensive player last year, anchors the linebacking corps with veterans Jovan Santos-Knox and Kameron Kelly.
An experienced secondary was bolstered by the return of American defensive back Richard Leonard. He spent 2021 with Calgary after playing his first three CFL seasons with Hamilton.
But defensive back Cariel Brooks, who finished tied for the CFL lead in interceptions last year with five, starts on the six-game injured list.
Sophomore Domagala will handling kicking duties. The St. Catharines, Ont., native made seven-of-10 field goals in seven regular-season games last year but hit a career-long 49-yard attempt in the Ticats' 25-23 exhibition win over Montreal on May 28.
American rookie Simon Laryea opens the year as Hamilton's punter. Incumbent Joel Whitford made the squad out of training camp but the Australian will start the season on the injured list.
The six-foot-three, 209-pound Whitford posted a 45.1-yard average in 12 regular-season contests last year. Domagala also handled punting duties while Whitford was out.
Hamilton finished second in the East Division last season with an 8-6 record. After downing Montreal 23-12 in the conference semifinal, the Ticats advanced to the Grey Cup with their road win over Toronto.
The Ticats open the '22 season visiting the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday night. They'll make their home debut June 18 hosting the Calgary Stampeders.
Head coach Orlondo Steinauer begins his third season at the helm but first with the added role of president of football operations. The CFL's 2019 coach of the year, who has amassed a stellar 23-9 regular-season record, is unsure exactly how this team will differ from last year's squad.
"I don't know yet, I honestly don't," he said. "That will unveil itself.
"We're still trying to decide who we are and just what we're going to bring to the table. I think every year you're trying to figure out exactly what you do as a football team. Sometimes players emerge, sometimes injuries have a hand in that but the key is you want to try to win more than you lose along the way."
JUST THE FACTS
PRESIDENT OF FOOTBALL OPERATIONS: Orlondo Steinauer (first season)
HEAD COACH: Steinauer (third season)
2021: Finished second in East Division (8-6-0). Beat Montreal 23-12 in division semifinal, defeated Toronto 27-19 in conference final, lost 33-25 in overtime to Winnipeg in Grey Cup.
ADDITIONS: QB Matthew Shiltz (Montreal), WR Lemar Durant (B.C.), DL Micah Johnson (Saskatchewan), CB Richard Leonard (Calgary), OL Kyle Saxelid (Edmonton).
DEPARTURES: WRs Brandon Banks (Toronto) and Jaelon Acklin (Ottawa), QB Jeremiah Masoli (Ottawa), OL Darius Ciraco (Ottawa).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Dane Evans, WR Bralon Addison, LBs Simoni Lawrence and Jovan Santos-Knox, RB Don Jackson.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2022.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press