HAMILTON — It has taken five years, but Jeremiah Masoli is finally a starting CFL quarterback.
The 29-year-old secured the No. 1 spot with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after leading the team to a 6-4 record last season under then-interim head coach June Jones. The Tiger-Cats made Jones their full-time head coach this off-season and then signed Masoli to a two-year extension as their starter.
But the question remains for how long?
Hamilton opens the 2018 season with road games against Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders, two teams expected to contend for tops in the West Division. Then the Ticats return home to host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on June 29 before facing the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a home-and-home series.
Hamilton's first game against an East Division opponent isn't until July 28 when it hosts the Ottawa Redblacks.
However, facing five straight West opponents isn't the only issue Masoli must deal with early this year. Johnny Manziel, the former Heisman Trophy winner, will be on Hamilton's sideline this season.
Johnny Football signed with Hamilton on the eve of training camp. His arrival made headlines across North America and throughout camp a number of American outlets made the trek to Ron Joyce Stadium to speak to the celebrated 2014 Cleveland Browns first-round pick.
Manziel came off the bench in both of Hamilton's exhibition games, completing 21-of-32 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown with 29 yards rushing on six carries. While those numbers aren't off the charts, Manziel did show flashes of brilliance and his confidence has appeared to grow as he gets more familiar with Canadian football.
Hamilton has also helped fan the Manziel flames with Jones stating publicly he felt Manziel could be the best player ever to suit up in the CFL. Heady praise, indeed, for a player who has yet to play an official down in Canada.
Manziel, 25, has been happy with his progression since joining the Ticats. Given his reputation, Manziel understands he's going to be a target whenever he's on the field. But he said he's not going to back down.
“I don't want anything but everybody's best shot,” Manziel said. “I've talked to guys on the team about this, about some things I said last week as far not backing down from anybody.
" I think that's our mantra for our whole team.”
Jones has remained steadfast in his support of Masoli as the starter but likes what Manziel brings to the table.
“He’s a competitor,” Jones said. “And he can make a difference.”
Meanwhile, the Ticats have another familiar name leading the defence.
After helping at Hamilton's training camp in 2017, Jerry Glanville begins his first season in the CFL as the Ticats' defensive co-ordinator. Glanville's coaching career has spanned over 30 years and he's served as an NFL head coach with the Houston Oilers (1985-89) and Atlanta Falcons (1990-93).
Glanville and Jones have coached together both in the NFL and NCAA. Glanville was the Falcons' head coach for the five years Jones was a quarterback on that (1977-1981).
Here's a breakdown of the 2018 Hamilton Tiger-Cats:
HEAD COACH: June Jones enters his first full season after replacing Kent Austin on interim basis last year.
2017: 6-12, third in CFL East and missed playoffs.
NEW ADDITIONS: QB Johnny Manziel was undoubtedly Hamilton's biggest off-season acquisition. Kicker Lirim Hajrullahu, signed as a free agent, fills a definite need and comes off a Grey Cup-winning season with Toronto. Offensive lineman Mathieu Girard coming out of retirement fills a hole created by the trading of Ryan Bomben to Montreal. The club also bolstered its coaching ranks with the return of assistant head coach Orlondo Steinauer and the hiring of special teams co-ordinator Frank Gansz Jr.
DEPARTED: The Zach Collaros era ended in January with the Ticats dealing the quarterback to Saskatchewan. All-star slotback Andy Fantuz, who played in just three games last season after suffering a torn ACL in October 2016, wasn't re-signed. Hamilton dealt defensive back Abdul Kanneh to Toronto and also bid farewell to defensive back Emmanuel Davis and Canadian defensive lineman Ben D'Aguilar. Kent Austin, the franchise's former head coach and director of football operations, stepped down to become a consultant with the club.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Jeremiah Masoli finished the '17 season with a bang and will have solid veterans Luke Tasker and Brandon Banks to play catch with. Canadian defensive tackle Ted Laurent and veteran linebackers Simoni Lawrence and Larry Dean should be the anchors to Jerry Glanville's defence with national safety Courtney Stephen serving as the leader of the secondary.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press