June 22nd, 2024

Milanovich calls the shots as Butler runs the show for Hamilton Tiger-Cats

By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press on October 31, 2023.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back James Butler (9) scores a touchdown as B.C. Lions' Boseko Lokombo (20) defends during second half CFL football action in Vancouver on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. Butler finished third overall in rushing with 1,116 yards, his second straight 1,000-yard campaign. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns

HAMILTON – James Butler has given the Hamilton Tiger-Cats something they haven’t had since 2010 but he certainly had to work for it the last half of the regular season.

Butler finished third overall in rushing with 1,116 yards, his second straight 1,000-yard campaign. He’s Hamilton’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2010 when DeAndra’ Cobb had 1,173 yards.

But the 5-9, 210-pound Butler accumulated 406 rushing yards on 86 carries through Hamilton’s first eight regular-season games before offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell and the Ticats mutually parted ways. In nine games with senior assistant Scott Milanovich calling plays, Butler ran for 710 yards on 149 carries.

Butler didn’t dress for Hamilton’s regular-season finale, a 22-20 loss Saturday in Montreal. But he’ll suit up Saturday when the Ticats (8-10) return to Molson Stadium to face the Alouettes (11-7) in the East Division semifinal.

Hamilton had a 3-5 record through eight games before splitting its final 10 contests. The Ticats were seventh overall in CFL rushing (96.7 yards per game) while Montreal’s defence was fifth against the run (112 yards per game).

Butler’s increased workload didn’t happen by accident. When Milanovich assume play-calling duties, rookie Taylor Powell was Hamilton’s starter as veterans Bo Levi Mitchell and Matt Shitlz were both injured.

Mitchell and Shiltz are both back with Mitchell having started Hamilton’s final three regular-season contests. Mitchell will start Saturday with Shiltz expected to serve as the backup.

“We were dealing with three quarterbacks over the last nine weeks so the run game was critical,” Milanovich said. “And at this time of year that’s what it takes.

“When I looked at the playoff games last year, in four of the five games the winning team had more yards rushing and generally that’s how it works in the CFL.”

Milanovich knows that firsthand. He won two Grey Cups as an offensive co-ordinator/quarterback coach with Montreal (2009-10 with stalwart rushers Avon Cobourne and Brandon Whitaker) and another as Toronto’s head coach (2012, with Chad Kackert).

Under Milanovich, Butler has averaged almost 17 carries per game and recorded three 100-yard rushing contests. Butler was averaging almost 11 attempts and had one 100-yard performance over Hamilton’s first eight games.

Butler had 10 or more carries in all games under Milanovich while doing so four times of the opening eight contests. And the more run plays, the better for offensive linemen as it’s their opportunity to exact their will upon their defensive counterparts.

“Let’s be honest, pass blocking is catching a bullet,” Mitchell said. “You’re just taking it to the face or getting twisted and knocked off.

“When they (offensive linemen) have the ability to go forward and do that to the defence, I think it gives them a different physical mindset.”

A consistent ground game is vitally important, especially in November when the weather turns cold and windy. Not only can it help an offence control the clock but give a defence more to consider than concentrating solely on getting after the passer.

“Once you’re just only passing the ball “¦ the defensive line gets to pin its ears back,” said Mitchell. “The defensive co-ordinator kind of gets to basically throw whatever he can on the wall and sees what sticks when it comes to blitzes and pressure.

“If you can be consistent with the run game, what it does is keep guys close to the box to get ready for that. It gets them a little bit more out of place compared to starting out wide and be like, ‘We’ll react to the run game late when they do it but they’re not doing it enough.'”

Establishing the run also allows the offensive co-ordinator/playcaller to use more of his playbook to further keep a defence guessing. And Milanovich likes to remain patient with the establishment of a ground attack.

“You’d like six (yards per carry) but I don’t worry too much even if only gets one because you know eventually it’s going to pop,” he said. “Offensive coaches always talk about, ‘You need at least five or it wasn’t worth running it,’ but I don’t look at it that way.

“You’ve got to give (the running back) touches.”

Especially with a running back of Butler’s quality.

“He’s a good football player “¦ he’s just a well-rounded back,” Milanovich said. “He’s quiet but he’s always prepared.

“I don’t know that he’s flashy but when you throw him a swing route on second and 10, he gets nine and so you can go for it on third down. He’s a really valuable player.”

A fact not lost upon Mitchell, the two-time Grey Cup champion and CFL MVP.

“JB is a very, very special back,” Mitchell said. “To name all of his attributes isn’t possible but I love watching his patience and how he sets runs up.

“Getting to hand him the ball I get in trouble because I’m supposed to boot away but I turn around and watch the guy run.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2023.

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