HAMILTON — You could say the struggling Hamilton Tiger-Cats straightened themselves on the weekend, and you would be right.
Back in the win column is nothing to sneeze at after an 0-2 start. But if you are looking for the one area of the game that really got untracked this past weekend in the Hamilton game plan look no further than return man, rusher and receiver Marcus Thigpen.
The special teams wonderkid of a year ago had been disturbingly quiet through two games although for different reasons. In Week 1 he couldn’t hang on to the ball. In Week 2 he had a handle on things but the conditions in Edmonton made it all but impossible for the potentially explosive return man to get anything going.
But Thigpen will readily admit while those were factors they weren’t the only things broken.
In short Thigpen had lost some trust in his teammates and was no longer taking the football north/south and hitting the holes a good returner believes will be made by his blockers.
Instead he was doing a lot of east-west running waiting to see a hole appear and then trying to make something happen.
“I had talks with coach after the first two games and I had to step up my game individually,” Thigpen said. “I wasn’t trusting my teammates on the returns and then Avon went down and he trusted me enough to put me in there. I was just thankful for the opportunity.”
Ticats head coach Marcel Bellefeuille believes the opportunity to get Thigpen more touches in the offence was beneficial to his return game. Thigpen agrees to a point, but for him it wasn’t the number of touches but the early touches that mattered.
“I just need to get going,” Thigpen said. “Once I get that first hit out of the way, that first run, I feel like I can do anything out there. Once I get that first couple of balls in my hand, I feel unstoppable.”
Thigpen had just 131 return yards through the first two games but added 93 in the third, against Saskatchewan, to get back to the form Hamilton fans recall from a year ago when he finished the year with a combined return total of 1,722 yards.
“I know I’m a way better player than what I have showed on the field and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t producing like I know I should,” Thigpen said. “So I stayed for the extra work and the extra film study with the coaches and I think it’s starting to pay off.”
Thigpen sounded more relieved than anything that his production level was back to normal but it didn’t alter his post practice routine. He stayed behind returning extra kicks after practice ended.
Quarterback Kevin Glenn jokingly suggested after practice that the Thigpen turnaround had nothing at all to do with his extra work or re-found trust in his teammates. The credit for his return to form was directly linked to the barbecue dinner Glenn and his wife provided mid-week.
“I am going to credit that for him coming by my house for a barbecue last week,” Glenn said in the lighthearted manner that only comes about when a team is winning again. “He and Avon (Cobourne) came by with their families. They brought their kids. Thigpen has the kids (four between the ages of one and seven) while I have a kid. We set up a play day. I put some meat on the grill and I’m going to credit his performance to my cooking. Maybe I’ll have to do it again this week. Maybe he has to eat my cooking every week, no offence to his wife.”
Thigpen has no problem sharing the credit for his performance with Glenn’s abilities on the grill as long as it means another invite.
“He did a good job,” Thigpen said playing along. “If he does it every week, I will accept the invitation.”
Glenn though was not joking about the impact Thigpen’s play had on Saturday’s outcome. The Ticats had a 23-0 lead on the Roughriders before the half thanks in large part to the field position Thigpen’s returns got them.
“When we have the field position we had the other day, it’s great,” Glenn said. “Some people say if you look at the yardage we didn’t really have a lot of yards, but we didn’t need a lot of yards because of the field position he kept putting us in. When you have a guy who can do all those things, it’s phenomenal. The guy returns punts, plays receiver, plays running back. I’m surprised they haven’t put him on defence yet and tried him at safety or DB.”
Bellefeuille and the rest of the Tiger-Cats will be perfectly happy if Thigpen just keeps doing what he’s doing when the Tabbies have the ball.