'Brownie Man' stabilizes Ticats' O-line

Former Calgary Stampeder centre Tim O'Neill has changed uniforms, working out with this new team,...

Former Calgary Stampeder centre Tim O'Neill has changed uniforms, working out with this new team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, this week at Ivor Wynne Stadium. (QMI Agency files)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:11 PM ET

HAMILTON -- Tim O'Neill is a man of few words, a man who can go completely unnoticed unless a quarterback gets sacked or some blocking lane gets stuffed by an opposing defensive lineman.

But O'Neill is nonetheless one man worth following once the Ticats reconvene for their full training camp and ultimately once the CFL season kicks off.

Such is the anonymous life of an offensive lineman, often under-valued and unappreciated when most of the fanfare gets directed at skilled players.

In football, though, a team is only as good as its down linemen and no offence, no matter the talent that gets assembled, can function without the most basic of elements -- pass protection and run blocking.

O'Neill came to the Hammer via Calgary, where he was exposed to George Cortez's system when the Ticats' current head coach served as the Stamps' offensive co-ordinator.

One of the players O'Neill protected was quarterback Henry Burris.

"I've known him a long time and I don't think he's said five words during that whole time,'' Cortez said of O'Neill on Friday as Hamilton's three-day mini-camp came to an end.

When Cortez took over this off-season, a lot of his time was spent watching film of last year's Ticats team before the exercise involved free agents.

One free agent was O'Neill, a versatile lineman from Victoria, B.C., who can line up at both centre and guard.

"I looked at a lot of tape of him last year,'' Cortez added. "He's an improved player from the time I was first around him.

"He was a competent player then and he's a good addition for us."

Given the non-contact setting of a mini-camp where no shoulder pads are worn, a lot that will be gleaned on the line of scrimmage involves film work.

Naturally, at this level of football every player has the strength, but it's foot work and being able to get one's body in the correct position that separates one from the other.

"Nice job,'' Cortez said of his impression of O'Neill.

Where O'Neill eventually lines up will depend a lot on the health of veteran centre Marwan Hage, who continues to rehab his surgically repaired knee.

Hage and Peter Dyakowski (undisclosed reasons) were two of the most visible Ticats not present at mini-camp.

Recently, the Ticats have been quite active in signing offensive linemen, including a handful of imports.

Afterall, the likes of Burris, Martell Mallock and Andy Fantuz, the team's three off-season jewels, won't amount to anything if the offensive line doesn't do its job.

Once he knew his time in Calgary would soon expire, Burris spoke to O'Neill about the possibility of a reunion.

"As soon as Hamilton called, I talked with Henry and I was excited to be here,'' O'Neill said. "I like playing for the guy. He's a good guy and that made it a lot easier to come here."

Burris has anointed O'Neill the Brownie Man in reference to a paper towel commercial that features a benign character who sports a beard.

"When you get the insurance of the Brownie Man in front of you, you definitely have security,'' smiled Burris, also known as Smilin' Hank. "He's laid-back with that West Coast mentality, but once he puts on the helmet and gets out there between the lines, he's one scrappy booger.

"He's the kind of guy you want on your side because no one's going to give you crap as a quarterback. He'll do everything in his power to keep people off of you."

The lunch-bucket fans in Steeltown will take a shining to O'Neill, who prides himself on working hard and getting better each day.

"I like to describe myself as someone who wants to be the best that I can be,'' he said.

frank.zicarelli@sunmedia.ca


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