By Steve Milton
Lost in the euphoric wake of the Tiger-Cats' comeback victory — from a 25-point deficit — a week ago in Edmonton, was the fact that near the end the Eskimos still had a good chance to win the game.
They had the ball at the Hamilton 25-yard line, trailing by six points with 90 seconds to play. Then they took a holding penalty, and incurred a sack by Ticats defensive lineman Ted Laurent, to sit at second and 27 at the Hamilton 42-yard line with about a minute to play.
Then, looking for the touchdown that would win it, Eskimo quarterback Mike Reilly dropped back, was chased out of the pocket and in turn chased down from behind by blitzing Hamilton safety Courtney Stephen.
As he approached Reilly, Stephen lifted his arm looking exactly like the prototype in the strip-tackling drills the Ticats defenders practise almost every day, and slashed down on the ball to force the fumble that Larry Dean recovered to guarantee the greatest rebound victory in Ticat history.
That play was a metaphor for the versatility of Stephen, who started here as safety in 2013, then spent two years as a ratio-buster at field corner and was moved back to safety (he hasn't practised at corner) with Craig Butler's knee injury forcing him to miss the entire 2016 campaign.
"We work on those things in practice," defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer says of Stephen's strip-sack. "But bigger than that it was the timing of it. You can have those things in the first quarter and they have meaning, but with the game on the line, it was just one of those special things.
"He's doing great. Each person who plays back there in our system brings something different. Butler brings something, Courtney brings something.
"It took a little while for (Stephen) to make the adjustment to being back there, but he's doing an outstanding job. And the thing I see is that he's getting better, and he's getting more vocal. His physical tools are amazing — he's rangy, he loves to hit, he's a good blitzer. I'm proud of him, so far, but we're just scratching the surface."
The 26-year-old from Brampton was a key free agent re-signing for the Cats. He's versatile and athletic, and is an outstanding special teams player.
On Brandon Banks' 120-yard missed field goal return against Winnipeg, he threw one of the two key blocks. And when Banks returned a punt to the house against Montreal, Stephen was the downfield blocker who resisted the urge to throw an iffy, and possibly indictable, hit late in the return because he is game-savvy enough to know that Banks didn't help, so why risk it.
"I just feel that in my fourth year I have to be somewhat more of a leader, and I think that's going to be indicated by how well the young guys are playing," Stephen says, shifting the attention away from his own play, which has been very strong. "If they play well, then I know I've done my job."
As for the strip-sack, and his third forced fumble of the year, he credits the coaches for demanding strong fundamentals, then allotting the practice time to develop them.
So, does he prefer safety or corner?
"I prefer to be on the field," he says quickly. "Anywhere, as long it's in black and gold."
Head coach Kent Austin says Stephen "is doing well. He's kind of our 'move' guy in the secondary and he's met every challenge that is given to him."
CATS CLAUSE: Austin says he doesn't know yet if Zach Collaros, out since last Sept. 19 with a torn ACL and surgery-recovery, will play Wednesday in Winnipeg. "He's really close," Austin said. "We'll see how the next couple of days go." ... Austin said DB Johnny Sears, injured last weekend, is doubtful for Wednesday.