HAMILTON — For the third time in five years, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will open their regular season against the arch-rival Toronto Argonauts. That's just fine with linebacker Simoni Lawrence.
Hamilton will kick off the 2017 campaign visiting Toronto at BMO Field. The Ticats played the spoiler role to perfection last year, downing the Argos 42-20 in their first game at the refurbished outdoor venue.
"It's my favourite place to play," said the colourful Lawrence. "I love everything about this rivalry, I understand it's a rivalry and I love games where everybody understands they don't like you, you don't like them.
"You don't have to sugercoat anything, you just have to go in there and play ball. Hell yeah, I love games like that."
Despite taking two-of-three games with Toronto last year, Hamilton finished with Montreal at 7-11, the club's first losing season since head coach/GM Kent Austin's arrival in 2013. But capturing the season series with the Alouettes secured the Ticats second in the East Division and they went on to the playoffs, losing 24-21 to Edmonton in the conference semifinal.
Hamilton starter Zach Collaros missed the first six games of the 2016 season recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in a game against Edmonton in September 2015. Collaros also missed five games in 2014 when he suffered a head and back injury, also versus the Eskimos.
Collaros didn't play in Hamilton's opening 30-29 exhibition loss to Ottawa but started Friday night's 23-16 loss to Toronto at Tim Hortons Field, completing 10-of-17 passes for 126 yards and a TD. More importantly, the 28-year-old withstood being hit against the Argos.
"I took some good shots and it felt great," he said. "It was like, 'OK, I'm ready to go now, I needed that.'
"It's really weird not getting hit all of training camp and then getting out there."
Backup Jeremiah Masoli was solid in Collaros's absence last year, completing 230-of-332 passes (69 per cent) for 2,695 yards with 15 TDs and 12 interceptions. But it's Collaros who makes the Hamilton offence go and his health will be a determining factor in the club's 2017 fortunes.
The six-foot, 219-pound Collaros is entering his sixth CFL season and fourth in Hamilton. When healthy, the 28-year-old can attack opposing defences with his arm and legs and effectively put an offence on his shoulders.
He has the experience to recognize coverages and blitzes and knows how to effectively counter those measures.
"That comes with preparation and that's on us every week," he said. "As long as we do the proper things to prepare and execute those plays hopefully it will continue to be that way for me."
Terrence Toliver (65 catches, 1,036 yards, nine TDs) and Luke Tasker (76 catches, 852 yards, five TDs despite missing six games) will anchor Hamilton's receiving corps to open the season. Canadian slotback Andy Fantuz (101 catches, 1,059 yards, both team highs) is working in the front office while recovering from a knee injury.
Veteran centre Mike Filer leads the way for a Hamilton offensive line that could feature two American starters in tackles Xavier Fulton and Jordan Swindle.
After injuries limited him to just 12 games through 2014-15, running back C.J Gable appeared in 15 contests last year, rushing for 693 yards (5.5-yard average) and three TDs. He added 39 catches for 405 yards and a touchdown.
With Brett Maher now in Ottawa, Sergio Castillo handles kicking duties while veteran Brandon Banks presents big-play ability in the return game.
Hamilton promoted Jeff Reinebold to defensive co-ordinator from special teams/linebackers coach with the off-season departure of Orlondo Steinauer (Fresno State). Reinebold, a 30-plus year coaching veteran, has plenty of talent on his unit.
Veterans John Chick, Canadian Ted Laurent and Adrian Tracy are all solid on the defensive line while Lawrence and Larry Dean anchor the linebacking corps. And Canadian Courtney Stephen is a versatile performer who can play at either cornerback or safety.
Canadian Craig Butler, a former CFL all-star safety, is expected to return this season after missing all of last year with a knee injury. And the Ticats re-signed all-star defensive back Emmanuel Davis this off-season.
"I know we lost our two (exhibition) games but I could definitely see how physical we are and that's a big plus," said Lawrence. "I think teams are going to know that it's going to be a physical game when you come play Hamilton.
"That's just what we're built on right now: Physicality."