Four ready to tackle key line role

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE MILTON

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.

JOHN RENNISON, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Of­fen­sive line­men Jor­dan Swin­dle, left, and Ryan Bomben, right, line up against de­fen­sive end John Chick at Tiger-Cat train­ing camp Mon­day.

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