It IS a stretch

Saun­ders im­proves the of­fence’s po­ten­tial

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE MIL­TON

The Hamil­ton Tiger-Cats don’t need an­other rea­son to keep im­prov­ing their pro­tec­tion for Zach Col­laros, but here’s one any­way: Jalen Saun­ders. Col­laros needs the time to let Saun­ders do what he does best … beat de­fend­ers down­field.

Not only is the fleet 24-year-old rookie out of Ok­la­homa the only Ti­cat re­ceiver in the CFL’s top 25 in terms of to­tal yardage, but he leads all league re­ceivers who have 200 yards or more in av­er­age gain per re­cep­tion at 18.5 yards.

Saun­ders is a le­git­i­mate deep threat and has 15 re­cep­tions in the three games he’s started since 1,000-yard re­ceiver Ter­rence To­liver went down on open­ing night. He had that all-alone 60-yarder against B.C. in the home opener that lifted ev­ery­one — at least those not al­ready stand­ing in the beer pa­tios — out of their seats.

But equally im­por­tant as the num­ber of times Saun­ders has caught the ball is the num­ber of times (26) that Col­laros has thrown it to him, con­sid­er­ing that most of the passes in­volve length.

That demon­strates that the Ti­cats are se­ri­ous about go­ing down­field, and de­fences have to re­spect that. It’s a sim­i­lar equa­tion to the run­ning game: the more you hand it off, even with­out a suc­cess­ful re­sult, the more the op­po­si­tion thinks you might do it again, and they have to keep that front of mind.

It’s not a com­plete cor­re­la­tion, be­cause dif­fer­ent plays and de­fen­sive cov­er­ages af­fect who’s tar­geted, but in gen­eral if you have to re­spect a true deep threat, which Saun­ders ap­pears to be, some­thing might loosen up in the midrange where Ti­cat re­ceivers have of­ten been heav­ily blan­keted. As in all things football, the knee bone is con­nected to the thigh bone.

“My speed will stretch a de­fence,” Saun­ders says. “I think it stretches the field and helps the others, and me, un­derneath, too.”

In­side re­ceivers Luke Tasker, who was thrown to only twice the pre­vi­ous game, and Ju­nior Collins com­bined for 15 tar­gets and 10 catches against Ed­mon­ton, when Col­laros went to Saun­ders eight times.

“That (stretch­ing the field) is an el­e­ment that’s been miss­ing with To­liver’s de­par­ture,” head coach Kent Austin said this week. “We’re try­ing to man­u­fac­ture that in dif­fer­ent ways and try­ing to re­place Ter­rence’s pro­duc­tion, and Jalen’s helped in that re­gard.

“Jalen’s go­ing to get a lot bet­ter. He has no ex­pe­ri­ence. The best is still in front of him.”

Which is ex­actly what Saun­ders feels. In two of the three games he’s played, he has been the lead­ing Ti­cat in yardage gained, and he’s grasp­ing CFL cov­er­age pat­terns, but it’s not bred in the bone yet. Un­til this month, he hadn’t played a reg­u­lar sea­son game in more than two full years.

“I feel like I’m do­ing what I’m ca­pa­ble of do­ing, but could it be more more? Yes,” Saun­ders says. “The best is yet to come. It’s learn­ing the league, learn­ing the de­fences and cov­er­ages. It’s still ball, but it’s a tad dif­fer­ent than the U.S.

I feel that as soon as I’m more on top of my A-plus game, I can play free, free, free on the football field.

“I’m rec­og­niz­ing cov­er­ages, but I’m not a vet. They’ll re­ally rec­og­nize and feel some­thing that they’re used to see­ing. This is some­thing that’s still new to me but not brand-new brand-new, if that makes any sense.

“Let’s say that the food is in my sys­tem … but it’s not bro­ken down yet.”

Af­ter four Ti­cat games, three of which he’s played, Saun­ders has 278 re­cep­tion yards, putting him on a pace to sur­pass 1,100 yards on the sea­son.

Col­laros was say­ing this week that “the more ways we can get him the ball, the more pro­duc­tive we’ll be.”

And, as every Ti­cat fan knows, they need to be more pro­duc­tive. NOTES: De­fen­sive half­back Ab­dul Kan­neh took reps for the sec­ond straight day, which Austin said was an en­cour­ag­ing sign ... Austin also cor­rected a time­line mis­take he made Tues­day when he said Keon Lynn would be out 9 to 12 weeks with a bro­ken leg. It’s re­ally 9 to 12 months.

Jalen Saun­ders: “Best is yet to come.”

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