Quarterback Burris leads way for revamped Hamilton Tiger-Cats offence
HAMILTON - He has won two Grey Cup titles, been named a Grey Cup and CFL MVP and amassed over 41,000 yards passing over 12 pro seasons in Canada.
But Henry Burris has never quite seen a receiving corps like the one he has with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
"This is the fastest receiving corps I've ever played with, hands down," Burris said. "We have so much speed from boundary to field and so many different combinations of guys and even guys coming off the bench, they all have great speed.
"I'm excited about this group of guys because they're hungry while also looking forward to ways they can get better.''
The off-season addition of Canadians Andy Fantuz and Sam Giguere to go along with veteran slotback Dave Stala, sophomore Chris Williams — the CFL's top rookie last season — and youngsters Bakari Grant and Aaron Kelly gives Hamilton one of the league's deepest receiving corps. And that's great news for Burris, the 37-year-old quarterback acquired in the off-season after losing his starting job with the Calgary Stampeders to Drew Tate.
But Burris says he's not thinking about redemption.
"I don't feel that way," he said. "I think what happened in Calgary was the organization trying to do something for its future.
"The bottom line is I'm going to get back to playing the kind of football the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, their fans and even the media know I can play. Now, it's about me going out and doing it and that's what I'm looking forward to.''
And make no mistake, the Ticats won't be afraid to throw the ball in 2012.
"It's a passing league,'' said new head coach George Cortez. "If you can't throw the ball you can't win.''
Problem is, there is on only one football so keeping all the receivers happy can be challenging.
Burris isn't worried.
"It's a bunch of unselfish guys," Burris said. "Each of them wants to make plays but they're all unselfish to the point where they want to help each other to make plays.
"That's important because teams are going to go into certain defences to take certain guys away but we have enough talent where any guy who gets the ball into his hands has the talent to make big plays happen. That's going to put a lot of pressure on defences.''
While much of Hamilton's off-season emphasis was on its offence, it did bolster its secondary heading into its season opener Friday at home to the Saskatchewan Roughriders by re-acquiring defensive back Geoff Tisdale from Calgary. Tisdale spent three seasons with the Ticats (2008-'10) before signing with the Stampeders as a free agent.
Tisdale's arrival caps what was a very active off-season for Ticats GM Bob O'Billovich, who began re-tooling his team shortly after Hamilton's 19-3 loss to Winnipeg in the East Division final.
After obtaining Burris from Calgary, O'Billovich fired head coach Marcel Bellefeuille and replaced him with Cortez, a 30-year coaching veteran who spent the last two seasons as the Buffalo Bills' quarterback coach.
Cortez, who is also Hamilton's football operations director, joins the Ticats with a with a well-earned reputation of being an offensive guru. Cortez has also worked previously with Burris as Calgary's offensive co-ordinator from 2007-'09, the two earning Grey Cup rings with the Stampeders in 2008.
"It has been a breath of fresh air for me because George helped bring me into this league and now he's going to help me exit this league," Burris said. "Just to be back with a guy who taught me so much about the game is great.
"I know his thought process and I think I'm even starting to become like him a bit where I just want to go out and play. Don't teach me too much because I already know too much and I'll start thinking. That's kind of like how George is.''
O'Billovich also dipped into free agency to land heralded Canadian Fantuz and tailback Martell Mallett — the CFL's top rookie in 2009 before bouncing between three NFL teams the past two seasons. Ticats fans will have to wait to see Mallett, who ran for over 1,200 yards with B.C. in 2009, after he suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury during training camp.
But the Ticats' offence shouldn't miss of a beat with the return of veteran Avon Cobourne. Hamilton released Cobourne, at the player's request, upon signing Mallett after Cobourne ran for a team-high 961 yards in his first season in Steeltown following four years — and two Grey Cup titles — with Montreal.
O'Billovich also — finally — managed to get Giguere's signature on a CFL contract. Hamilton selected the former Sherbrooke star in the first round, eighth overall, in 2008 but Giguere spent time in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants.
The five-foot-11, 215-pound Giguere has the potential to be a big difference-maker for Hamilton, both on offence and special teams.
The six-foot-four, 220-pound Fantuz was limited to just four games with Saskatchewan last season after being released by the NFL's Chicago Bears before sustaining an ankle injury upon returning to the Riders. But in 2010, the 28-year-old native of Chatham, Ont., was the CFL's top receiver with 87 catches for 1,380 yards and six TDs.
However, there are some questions, especially up front with the club's offensive and defensive lines.
Centre Marwan Hage missed both pre-season games recovering from off-season knee surgery but expects to play in the opener. That's important as the six-foot-two, 291-pound Montreal native is a former CFL all-star and generally regarded as one of the league's top centres.
Hamilton will also sport a different look along its defensive line with the departure of ends Justin Hickman (team-high 13 sacks before signing with NFL's Indianapolis Colts) and Stevie Baggs (released). CFL veterans Greg Peach, who spent the last three seasons with Edmonton, and Jeremaine McElveen, who like Cobourne has two Grey Cup rings to show for his four years with Montreal, were added in the off-season although Peach opens the season on the injured list.
There's certainly no questions surrounding Hamilton's linebacking corps with Renaud Williams, Markeith Knowlton and Jamal Johnson all proven veterans. And in the off-season the Ticats added former Toronto Argos starter Kevin Eiben.
Hamilton's kicking game will be split between veteran kicker Luca Congi and rookie punter Josh Bartel, a formr Aussie Rules Football star. Justin Medlock, who handled both jobs last year — making 49-of-55 field goals, finishing tied for second in CFL scoring with 197 points while sporting a solid 41.6-yard punting average — is now with the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
In times of trouble, Congi and Bartel won't have to look far for assistance as former Ticats kicker and punter Paul Osbaldiston is back as the club's assistant special-teams coach.