Thigpen back on the attack

Ticats kick returner Marcus Thigpen (left) admits he was rusty in Hamilton's season-opener against...

Ticats kick returner Marcus Thigpen (left) admits he was rusty in Hamilton's season-opener against the Blue Bombers last Friday. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:28 PM ET

HAMILTON - All Marcus Thigpen can possibly ask for is a chance to return a kickoff or a punt, no matter how far the pigskin travels, no matter how many defenders are running down field.

Even the slightest hole on a return can be turned into a significant return, providing field position and the opportunity for the offence to put up points.

The problem with Thigpen in Hamilton’s season-opening loss to Winnipeg was as obvious as the dropped balls and ineffective passing game that led to one offensive touchdown, a score that was set up on a blocked punt.

The problem that plagued Thigpen is that he never gave himself a chance to do what he does best, which is to apply pressure on cover units, because he never attacked the ball.

In what would turn out to be a harbinger of things to come, Thigpen got crossed up on the game’s opening kickoff when Ticat rookie Carlos Thomas cut in front of the second-year Thigpen as he was about to get his hands on the football.

“Miscommunication,’’ Thigpen began when asked to revisit the play.

When Thigpen and the rest of Hamilton’s special teams met to review Friday’s loss earlier in the week, the evidence supported his initial notion of what went wrong on a night when too many balls were allowed to drop in front of Thigpen.

“I wasn’t attacking enough balls,’’ he said. “I wasn’t attacking because I wasn’t as comfortable as I should have been. I’m way more comfortable now and I’ll give myself a chance.”

Every Ticat practice invariably ends with Thigpen lining up deep in a return position, ready to attack the football, nestle it into his arms and head up field.

It wasn’t the case against the Blue Bombers, whose strategy was to kick it away from Thigpen or kick it into touch to ensure no threat of a return.

On one attempt, Winnipeg punter Mike Renaud shanked it from Hamilton’s 53-yard line that resulted in a 10-yard penalty, one of the new rules added to the CFL’s odd rulebook that penalizes teams for kicking out of bounds if it’s not inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.

Given his explosive start to the CFL last season, teams have a better handle on how to defend Thigpen, who scored the first time he touched the football when he returned the opening kickoff 93 yards.

Four times Thigpen would produce touchdowns in the return game, either on a punt, kickoff or a missed field goal. He’d also post receiving and rushing majors to become the first player in CFL history to score five different ways.

The goal this year was to match his jersey number with an equal number of return touchdowns, but it’s unlikely Thigpen will get one, let alone eight, if he doesn’t attack the football.

“It was more a case of rust,’’ Thigpen said. “It was definitely the case on Friday. All around, we didn’t play our type of football.

“We were in the right places, but we weren’t executing the way we practised.”

During the pre-season, the Ticats wanted to give the versatile Thigpen some reps as a receiver.

In the pre-season opener against the Argos, he never returned a single punt or kickoff.

In the exhibition finale, Thigpen returned a punt for a major.

The way Hamilton’s offence struggled last week, a spark was needed from its special teams, a momentum shift only a player of Thigpen’s explosive abilities could provide.

It never came.

Much like a quarterback who goes through his progression, Thigpen’s first read is to see how the punter flips his hip, which determines direction.

“If he turns his hip a certain way, he can’t kick it the other way,’’ Thigpen said. “Then you have to follow it after he kicks it off his foot. You then go get the ball, find your blockers, get your reads and try to score.”

But if Thigpen isn’t attacking the football, no score is possible.

The hope is that a good week of practice has ironed out the rust Thigpen believes led to last week’s sub-par night.

“The true test is when live people are coming at you.”

A test that awaits on Saturday in Edmonton.

frank.zicarelli@sunmedia.ca


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