HAMILTON — For five weeks, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats lost the battle when it came to field position, paying the ultimate price on four occasions.
For five weeks, the team felt its kicking game would turn around and help kick-start a reversal in fortunes.
Now, five weeks later, and their season approaching a critical stage, if it hasn’t arrived already, the Ticats tied the can to rookie punter Justin Palardy and have turned to Eric Wilbur, an import who will make his debut in three-down football Saturday night at Ivor Wynne Stadium against the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
When you watch the Ticats practise and see them in game action, the talent level is among the best of any team in the eight-team CFL on either side of the line of scrimmage.
There’s experience at quarterback, playmakers, defenders who can apply pressure in the opposing backfield and linebackers who are active and aggressive.
But something has been amiss with these Ticats, who have underachieved at 1-4.
And part of the ails that plague Hamilton has been its kicking game.
The team rolled the dice when it decided to go with Palardy, by all accounts a good kid who couldn’t hold on to the football after it got snapped, even when no pressure was applied.
In hindsight, the Ticats grossly miscalculated, guilty of putting too much faith in an unproven commodity.
To compound matters, a proven commodity in Sandro DeAngelis has proven to be unreliable when three points are required to maintain momentum or draw nearer to an opponent.
DeAngelis appears safe for now, but the addition of Wilbur should send a clear message that change, no pun intended, is afoot.
“We’ve been losing the field position battle for five weeks and it has cost us opportunities in games to be successful,’’ Ticat head coach Marcel Bellefeuille began Friday. “This is one answer to get ourselves corrected.”
Under most circumstances, teams would prefer to use a non-import, be it as a punter or as a placekicker.
The very fortunate features one non-import capable of handling the dual responsibilities.
Given the CFL’s limited roster size, the luxury allows for greater flexibility when lining up American-born players.
Bart Andrus’ ill-fated run as Argos head coach last season will be remembered for many things, but what sticks out was the decision to begin the year with two American kickers on Toronto’s active roster.
So little is known about Wilbur because his body of work on the gridiron is limited, to say the least.
He has had two practices under his belt in the Hammer, two occasions for the Florida native to showcase a booming leg.
But punting, even in the wide-open CFL, is more about executing a punt to the right spot on the field, directional kicking in football’s parlance, hang time and making sure a snap isn’t fumbled and is released in rhythm.
“He has got a good leg, a strong leg and he’s poised,’’ Bellefeuille said of Wilbur. “He has a great demeanour. He can do both, but he’s primarily a punter. This should be an improvement for us.”
One of Wilbur’s first punts in a practice setting ended up bouncing out of the end zone and rested at the feet of an elderly lady while she sat on a lawn chair.
Such oddities can only happen in the CFL, where recently Hamilton lost its starting safety when Sandy Beveridge decided to become a full-time fireman.
Wilbur earned an NCAA championship for the Florida Gators during his four-year collegiate run that ended in 2006, took his booming leg to the NFL, but never caught on during stops with the New York Jets, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
With so much expected of the Ticats this season, they need to start winning or face the real possibility of losing more than just a rookie Canadian punter.
Technically, Palardy has been placed on Hamilton’s suspended list, which allows the team to keep his rights, a paperwork designation that frees up Palardy to return to St. Mary’s University to further his education.