HAMILTON — Jeremiah Masoli has a tough act to follow this season.
Masoli is coming off a career '18 campaign with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, one that saw the 30-year-old establish personal highs in starts (17), pass attempts (572), completions (378), yards (5,209) and touchdowns (28). After finishing second in the East Division (8-10), the Ticats dismantled B.C. 48-8 in the conference semifinal before dropping a 46-27 decision to Ottawa in the East final.
Masoli threw three TD strikes against B.C. but also had three interceptions versus Ottawa. However, Hamilton will arguably be the team to beat in the East this year with the Redblacks losing the likes of quarterback Trevor Harris, running back William Powell and offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers and neither Toronto nor Montreal making the CFL playoffs last season.
"For us, the mindset is we don't care about any of the rankings . . . we just want to win," Masoli said. "That's what it's all about.
"For me, it (Ticats' expectations) is just to win all of our games. Execute one play at a time, stay on the field as an offence, play together, play complimentary football. That's our goal."
Masoli will be playing for a different head coach (Orlondo Steinauer) and offensive co-ordinator (Tommy Condell) this season. This off-season, Hamilton promoted Steinauer to the head job when June Jones agreed to step back as the assistant head coach/offensive co-ordinator after 1 1/2 seasons at the helm.
Before training camp Jones left for the XFL, prompting Steinauer to promote Condell as his replacement. Condell was Hamilton's offensive co-ordinator (2013-14) and won a Grey Cup with Toronto in 2017 as its receivers coach.
It was Jones who made Masoli his starter upon becoming Hamilton's interim head coach midway through the 2017 season. In 27 regular-season starts under Jones, Masoli compiled a 14-13 record with over 8,300 passing yards, 43 TDs and 23 interceptions.
Masoli said his primary focus now is digesting Condell's offence.
"They're two different people, you could write a book on how different they are," he said. "One of them is kind of laid back and his teaching style is a little different, the other is up front and personal about it.
"I always feel like I have something to prove. This sport is what it is. Nobody's safe no matter what. I've got to do what I've got to do to hold my spot down."
Masoli's presence under centre gives Steinauer one less thing to worry about as he attempts to secure Hamilton its first Grey Cup win since 1999. Steinauer was a defensive back on that squad under late head coach Ron Lancaster.
"We're fortunate to have a guy like that," Steinauer said. "Absolutely you have to have someone who can spin it.
"Somebody who can take control of the huddle, who lead and battle through adversity, not always when times are good but also when times are tough."
Hamilton shored up its offensive line by adding veteran right tackle Chris Van Zeyl after he was released by the Toronto Argonauts.
There's plenty of familiarity for Masoli in Hamilton's receiving corps. Among the returnees are Brandon Banks (94 catches, 1,423 yards, 11 TDs), Luke Tasker (78 catches, 1,104 yards, 11 TDs) and Mike Jones (49 catches, 841 yards, three TDs). But veterans Jalen Saunders and Canadian Shamawd Chambers were both released.
Canadian defensive tackle Ted Laurent (team-high eight sacks) anchors Hamilton's defensive line. But Larry Dean (106 tackles) and Donald Unamba (59 tackles, four sacks, one pick) both left for Edmonton in free agency, leaving veteran Simoni Lawrence (68 tackles, three sacks) as the lone holdover at linebacker.
Cariel Brooks had a team-high four interceptions last year while veteran cornerback Delvin Breaux had none. And that was a testament to Breaux, who remains one of the CFL's top cover corners and is someone teams usually avoid throwing against.
Lirim Hajrullahu returns to handle punting (42.7-yard average), field goals (46-of-54, 41-of-46 converts) and kickoffs this season.
HAMILTON TIGER-CATS AT A GLANCE
HEAD COACH: Orlondo Steinauer, first season
LAST YEAR: 8-10, second in East. Beat B.C. 48-8 in East semifinal, lost 46-27 to Ottawa in East final.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Jeremiah Masoli: In the CFL, the quarterback is the most important player on the field. Masoli thrived for 1 1/2 seasons under Jones but will now execute Condell's offence.
WR Brandon Banks: He had 94 catches for 1,423 yards and 11 TDs before suffering a season-ending collarbone injury. When healthy, Banks is a bona fide game-breaker.
K/P Lirim Hajrullahu: Windy Tim Hortons Field presents many challenges for kickers, especially once the weather turns nasty in November. And with Hajrullahu handling all three kicking chores, he'll be an important figure for the Ticats.
THE BIG QUESTION: Can Steinauer lead Hamilton to its first Grey Cup title since 1999 in his first season as a CFL head coach?
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press