Hamilton -- Their paths may have been different, but 2011 offered the same frustrating results for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who will take centre stage in Friday’s CFL regular season opener at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
With a multitude of storylines heading in, all that matters in the end is that one team will get a chance to set aside last year’s woes right away – and one won’t.
Both teams have different expectations following a busy off-season, as the Riders dive head-first into a youth movement while the Ticats won’t settle for anything less than an appearance in the 100th Grey Cup.
Among Friday’s major storylines will be the Steeltown debut of non-import slotback Fantuz, who doesn’t have to wait long to battle his former team. Fantuz left his long-time CFL home in the off-season to move closer to his real home in Chatham, Ont., with hopes of helping the Ticats reach the next level.
The 28-year-old joins a number of new faces looking to make an impact this season, after General Manager Bob O’Billovich decided the team needed a new direction following a 19-3 loss in the East Final in Winnipeg.
First, Head Coach Marcel Bellefeuille was fired after four seasons, in which he compiled a 27-35 regular season record and only one playoff win.
The Ticats also decided part of the problem was at quarterback, where Kevin Glenn and Quinton Porter handled most of the snaps under centre during Bellefeuille’s tenure, eventually leading to the long-anticipated acquisition of Burris from Calgary.
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After Fantuz joined the team, the new trifecta would be completed with the addition of Cortez as the new head coach.Marwan Hage, a cornerstone of the Ticats’ offensive line, should also be returning to action after sitting out since last September thanks to a season-ending surgery.
Hamilton’s group of receivers is expected to be most impressive though, bolstered by the additions of Fantuz as well as Samuel Giguere from the NFL to complement an already-elite group of pass-catchers.
Giguere and import Chris Williams form one of the fastest receiver duos in the league, while Fantuz, non-import Dave Stala, and import Bakari Grant provide size and strength.
With such a star-studded cast, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, 2012 serves as one of the most highly-anticipated seasons for Ticats fans in recent memory, with the Black and Yellow earning early status as East Division favourite, second behind only BC to win the Grey Cup.
But with high expectations also comes a great deal of pressure, and after half a decade of underachieving, those suiting up on opening day realize that this group may not be given a lot of patience.
For all of their strengths, there are major question marks at certain positions for this new-look squad, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
The depth at defensive end will be tested as early as Friday, with free agent signing Greg Peach out of action nursing an injury. That spells trouble for a team already trying to cope with the loss of last year’s co-leader league-wide in sacks, Justin Hickman, to the NFL.
Stevie Baggs was also released in the off-season after a major letdown season, in which he had just five sacks and wound up
on the bench for the team’s 52-44 overtime win over the Alouettes in the East Division semifinal.
One player the Riders offensive line will have to keep tabs on should be defensive end Shawn Crable, a former draft pick of the NFL’s New England Patriots who was signed in the off-season to help Hamilton’s pass-rush.
In the secondary, the Ticats will get some help from recent signing Geoff Tisdale, who spent three seasons with Hamilton before going to Calgary in 2011. He was recently let go by the Stampeders.
Last but not least, the glue that holds the Ticats’ defensive unit together will be its linebackers, which boasts one of the toughest groups in the league with Rey Williams, Markeith Knowlton, and Jamall Johnson all being named to TSN’s list of top-50 CFL players heading into 2012.
The addition of long-time Argo and non-import Kevin Eiben augments that core.
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As far as Riders fans are concerned, 2012 rests on the throwing arm of Durant. Their 29-year-old starter is entering his fourth full season as the main guy in Riderville, but after starting to earn recognition as one of the league’s top pivots, Durant took the brunt of the blame for the Riders’ struggles a year ago.
But with a career high in completion percentage and a quarterback rating of 84.5, he wasn’t far off his usual numbers as a starter. Now he’s out to quickly put last season’s horrors behind him.
“I want him to find his groove," head coach Chamblin told Ridverville.com. "I don’t want him thinking about 2011 or whatever last year was. I want him to find Darian’s groove because we know that when he’s on, he’s on. He’s taken all of the coaching, he has put the past behind him and he’s ready to move forward."
Durant will have to do it without two of his biggest weapons, with long-time starting running back West Cates out of the mix as well as receiver Fantuz, which means some newer faces in the Riders’ offence as part of a youth movement.
Kory Sheets and Brandon West will try to get the job done on the ground, while a pair of well-known Riders in Weston Dressler and Chris Getzlaf, who the Riders hope will find the next level of their games this season.
Coming into camp, West appeared to have a hold on the starting job, but after impressing in pre-season and training camp, Sheets has taken over the primary role heading into Friday’s game. Sheets has a good combination of size and speed, and has shown he has the vision to be an elite CFL running back.
"If I need to break away from a guy and run past him, that's what I'll do," Sheets said in an interview with the Leader-Post after Monday's practice at Mosaic Stadium. "I'm also big enough to run a guy over if I have to.”