Four ready to tackle key line role
These are smart guys — one of them has taken postgraduate courses at UCLA, another studied pre-med at Kentucky — so they can count.
And they know that the numbers are pretty good: just four of them for what is likely a pair of openings at an extremely important position.
“We all have an opportunity,” agrees Malcolm Bunche, the sixfoot-six offensive tackle from UCLA. “It’s the four of us.”
The Hamilton TigerCats actually have five offensive tackles at training camp, but one of them is as close as it gets to being a lock. Xavier Fulton arrived here via trade from Saskatchewan last Thanksgiving and will certainly start at left tackle. His presence made longtime Ticat Brian Simmons expendable, and the popular tackle was traded to Montreal in February.
But, because of the surprise retirement of Jake Olson last week, there will be a CFL newbie at right tackle, and the team will likely carry another tackle on the practice roster.
Fulton is 31, has six years in the CFL and was in the NFL before that. But none of the other four tackle candidates have northern exposure beyond last month’s mini-camp and the first two camp days.
Bunche, though, is the oldest at just 25, while Torian White, out of Hampton, is 24, Jordan Swindle, the pre-med guy who is concentrating on his football career, is 23, and Palmer White from Chadron State is only 22.
As offensive line coach Mike Markuson says, younger players can be easier to mould into the kind of pro the team wants, but that’s an awful lot of get-up-to-speed to generate in one very short training camp.
Offensive tackle, especially on the quarterback’s blind side (the left for a righthanded quarterback like Zach Collaros), has assumed far more importance in recent years, on both sides of the border.
There once was a time when adequate American tackles were easy for CFL teams to discover and sign, but that’s changed in the past decade with more nimble defences, increasingly complicated offences, and quarterback injuries mounting like the national debt. Tackles are worth their considerable weight in gold.
“Everybody’s hoarding them,” says head coach Kent Austin.
“And rightfully so. Anyone who shows some upside, you’re going to try to find out a way you can keep them.
“They’re a commodity that’s hard to find, so everybody wants them: our league, the NFL. Once you get them up here, they have to develop very, very quickly if you’re going to use them in a game because you can lose a game pretty quickly with poor play on the edge.”
For at least the last five Opening Days, the Ticats have started two offensive tackles with at least some CFL experience.
No such luxury in 2017. The right side, and the practice roster, will be manned by American tackles still adjusting to pass rushers mounting a head of steam through the one-yard restraining zone, a defensive box which shimmies around like a kaleidoscope and, to quote Swindle, “the down blocking is really different.
“But I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming, I’d say it’s a challenge you have to meet.”
And it must be met proficiently. Hamilton has arguably the best blocking back in the league in CJ Gable, which certainly helps the offensive line. But to be a Grey Cup winner, this team needs Collaros well-protected, all the time. Opposing defences will exert immense pressure on Hamilton’s right side, until it’s proven that whoever’s in there can do the job play after play.
It’s early yet, but Swindle might have an edge on the other three. He has looked comfortable and is the tallest at six-foot-seven, although the others are all six-five or six-six and flirting with 300 pounds.
The newcomers, who acknowledge how fast the Canadian game is, know they’ve got a lot to learn about it. Rapidly. “I’m not saying it’ll take two or three days,” says Bunche, “but it will take some time.”
This is how much time he and the other three have: from Tuesday, it’s 26 days until the regular season opens.
Offensive linemen Jordan Swindle, left, and Ryan Bomben, right, line up against defensive end John Chick at Tiger-Cat training camp Monday.