Zach Collaros is the Hamilton Tiger-Cats starting quarterback, unless he’s not ready to be. In which case, it could be Jeremiah Masoli who led the team to one playoff win last season, then played spectacularly in almost orchestrating another. Or perhaps it’s Jeff Mathews, who was the No. 2, then the starter until he suffered a season-ending concussion.
“It’s weird situation, we have all kinds of different things going on,” agreed Masoli. “It’s going to be fun, either way.”
Masoli appeared to take what passed for first teams reps on Tuesday, the first day of a Ticats mini-camp filled with mostly first-year players, many of whom are absorbing information via firehose. On Wednesday, it was Mathews who got the first crack at most drills and the extremely limited team sessions.
Head coach Kent Austin wasn’t willing to offer a sneak peak at the depth chart.
“I won’t rank them right now. When we get into camp we’ll do some things differently that meet the skill sets of one guy better than the other guy and do some other things that meet the skill set of the other guy,” Austin said. “We just have to see which direction that goes based on how we want to enter the season with our philosophy offensively.”
Let’s parse those words a little. Masoli is a dual-threat guy and the Ticats essentially rebuilt the offensive scheme around him in the post-season, producing the thrilling win over Toronto and a 30-for-42, 349 yard passing performance in the East Final loss. Mathews, meanwhile, is the prototypical pocket passer who showed flashes of potential in his five starts in relief after Collaros’ torn ACL, including two wins.
A concussion suffered in week 17 against the Redblacks ended Mathews’ season and left him struggling with the after-effects. He’s fully recovered now and has to come to terms with insidious nature of the game’s scariest injury.
“As long as I’m able to make an informed decision and I have the power to make that decision, I’m fine with it,” Mathews said. “Maybe my perspective changes in ten years. But at this point, with all the research that’s come out I think all players know the risks.”
There are two other quarterbacks at mini-camp as well: third-year man Jacory Harris, who started one game last season, and newcomer Jake Waters, who was signed earlier this month after a stint on Hamilton’s negotiation list.
The graduating class at Waters’ Iowa high school featured exactly 43 students and he received exactly zero scholarship offers. Instead, he went junior college for two years, won a national title and then chose Kansas State when the big schools finally came calling. He set a bunch of school records, then got a shot with two NFL teams.
He had to look up Hamilton on a map and study the rules before he could get into a CFL playbook. But given his circuitous route to, well, any kind of football career he seems perfectly comfortable as the underdog guy in the underdog league.
“It’s been crazy – I didn’t think I was even going to get a chance to play college football,” he said. “Some guys get in that NFL or nothing mentality and I just want to play.”
There’s one more level of complexity to consider: what happens after this season. Of the five quarterbacks on the roster, just two – Masoli and Waters – are under contract for 2017. Collaros, Mathews and Harris are all in their option years and could be free agents come next February.
Masoli signed a contract extension in January, re-upping in Hamilton for two more seasons. It was something of a surprise, given the dearth of experienced quarterbacks in the CFL and his stellar performance when it mattered most in 2015. His Hamilton trajectory has been anything but linear, including a stint on the practice roster last season.
“I’ve had a wide spectrum of experiences but I’m just thankful for them,” Masoli said. “Football is not just a game, it teaches you life lessons.”
Some things, however, remain unknowable. Like who will be the Ticats’ week one starter.