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Veterans Masoli, Evans staging friendly competition for starting job with Tiger-Cats

They understand ultimately a decision will have to be made, but neither Jeremiah Masoli nor Dane Evans feel they're in a competition for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' starting quarterback job.

They understand ultimately a decision will have to be made, but neither Jeremiah Masoli nor Dane Evans feel they're in a competition for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' starting quarterback job.

The two friends are vying for the top spot in training camp after both saw significant time under centre in 2019, when the CFL team last played.

Masoli staked Hamilton to a 5-1 record to open the campaign before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. Evans stepped in and won nine of his 11 regular-season starts and led the Ticats to the Grey Cup before they suffered a 33-12 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"Everyone just knows things as a competition these days, but really, man, it's not," Evans said. "We tell each other before every practice and we've done this for years, that we're going to be each other's critic in a most loving way.

"I'm going to push him, I'm going to be his No. 1 fan and I know he's going to push me and I expect him to push me. I guess you could call it a competition but we're just grinding together, we're both working through it. We're not bigger than the game, we're just a position on the field. So whenever it rolls around and we start playing, whoever is out there is going to be the best for the team. I trust everybody in this organization to make that decision."

Masoli agrees.

"I'm trying to be the best quarterback I can be, the best teammate I can be. Period," he said. "I'm just another slice of the pie, another piece to the puzzle.

"We're going to need all hands on deck to win this championship, me and Dane included. It's football competition — coach O (head coach Orlondo Steinauer), Tommy (offensive coordinator Tommy Condell), those guys are going to have to make that decision. It's my job to be the best quarterback I can be. Honestly, it's like the opposite (of competition): we're helping each other out even more than anything."

The five-foot-10, 228-pound Masoli has the edge in experience as he's entering his eighth CFL season, all with Hamilton. This marks Evans' third year with the Ticats. Masoli had been the starter since midway through the 2016 campaign and had completed 125-of-175 passes (71.4 per cent) for 1,576 yards with nine TDs and seven interceptions while adding 79 rushing yards on 14 carries (4.5-yard average) with four touchdowns before being injured.

Hamilton's offence didn't skip a beat under Evans, who before last season had just one CFL start under his belt. The six-foot-one, 218-pound Evans completed 298-of-413 passes (72.1 per cent) for 3,754 yards with 21 TDs and 13 interceptions while rushing for 161 yards on 34 carries (4.7-yard average) with three touchdowns in 2019.

The Grey Cup loss was a bitter pill to swallow for a Hamilton franchise that won a club-record 15 regular-season games to earn Steinauer CFL coach-of-the-year honours in his first year in the post. But the team's success reaffirmed the need to have more than just one solid option at quarterback.

"I'd love to have this conversation for every year they let me be in charge," Steinauer said of having two proven veterans taking snaps. "I'll take it every year.

"They both want to outdo each other every time they're out there, but they're not afraid to hug and high-five afterwards. That's not who they're being coached to be, that's who they are and that's what makes them special. They both deserve to be starters ... they want the job but they're going to respect whatever decision is made and support the other one. It is truly about winning."

Masoli, 32, said he's feeling no limitations from his knee injury and doesn't even think about it when on the field.

"My knee feels really good," he said. "I've had so much time to rehab, it's really second nature now again.

"There is some rust but it's normal camp stuff."

Steinauer wasn't the least bit surprised to see Masoli ready to go when Hamilton opened training camp Saturday.

"When it comes to Jeremiah, you know he's a warrior," Steinauer said. "He's going to be ready ...  he's out there running around without a brace.

"He looks great, he's moving around fine. It's fun to watch."

The CFL didn't play games in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The league is scheduled to resume play Aug. 5 with a 14-game schedule.

Hamilton's first game is Aug. 5, with a Grey Cup rematch in Winnipeg versus the Blue Bombers. But redemption won't be the Ticats' goal, rather the team will be trying to secure its first CFL title since 1999.

And with the Grey Cup game slated to be played at Tim Hortons Field on Dec. 12, there's added incentive for Masoli and his teammates to end that drought this season.

"We all want to win a championship and raise the Cup. Period," Masoli said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 12, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press