HAMILTON — Tunde Adeleke is only 27, but he's already an elder statesman on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defence.
The five-foot-10, 208-pound Adeleke is entering his sixth CFL season and fourth with Hamilton. Despite his relative youth, the former Carleton star is among the longest-tenured players on a Ticats defence that will feature plenty of new faces in 2023.
Veteran linebacker Simoni Lawrence (11th CFL season, 10th with Hamilton) and Canadian defensive lineman Ted Laurent (12th CFL season, ninth with Hamilton) are the unit's two longest-serving players. Adeleke and defensive back Richard Leonard both came into the league in 2017, but this will be Leonard's fifth campaign with the Ticats.
"Yeah, it's different being one of the older guys on the team," Adeleke said with a chuckle. "I think the previous five years, a lot of rookies have come in at the same age as me so it's starting to get a little bit different.
"But Rich has still has years on me so there's that."
It will be a new-look Hamilton defence in 2023, with seven starters from last year's unit no longer with the team. That includes defensive linemen Micah Johnson (now with Saskatchewan) and Julian Howsare (Calgary), linebackers Jovan Santos-Knox (Ottawa)) and Kameron Kelly along with defensive backs Jumal Rolle (retired), Cariel Brooks (Ottawa) and Ciante Evans (Montreal).
Hamilton shored up its front seven in the off-season, adding veteran defensive linemen Casey Sayles (free agent, Winnipeg), Ja'Gared Davis (free agent, Toronto) and Canadian Kwaku Boateng (free agent, Ottawa), linebackers Jameer Thurman (free agent, Calgary) and Chris Edwards (free agent, Toronto). The Ticats also signed former Calgary defensive back Javien Elliott (who also spent time with Tampa Bay and Carolina in the NFL) while Kenneth George Jr., who played collegiately at Tennessee, has impressed during camp.
"To get new guys in the room, that first day was kind of different," Adeleke said. "But these guys have picked it up quick, they're pros and stars themselves."
Last year, Hamilton's defence was solid against the run (league-low 82.9 yards per game), allowed the second-fewest offensive yards (327.3) and was fourth overall in sacks (42). But it was also ranked fifth in offensive points allowed (23.7 per game), sixth against the pass (265.5 yards), eighth in interceptions (20) and last in turnovers forced (30).
"One thing we've got to get better at is closing out," Adeleke said. "We need to get our hands on more balls and (create) more turnovers and we're trying to score with this defence more often."
Orlondo Steinuaer, Hamilton's head coach/president of football operations, figures his defence will need some time to come together. But he's happy with what he's seen during camp.
""A great defence is often a result of a great offence, great special teams and that works all the way around," he said. "It usually all balances out in the end but that's what we refer to as complimentary football.
"I don't know exactly how long. I can just tell you I've liked the way we've jelled in two weeks."
Adeleke, a 2019 CFL all-star, agrees.
"The front seven is looking crazy," he said. "I think this league is going to be surprised with how good of a player (George Jr) is.
"Chris Edwards already has (experience) in the league and Elliott is a playmaker."
As a veteran in co-ordinator Mark Washington's defence, Adeleke said he can coach up younger players.
"That's one of the things I benefit from and that's why I feel comfortable helping the new guys here," he said. "Sometimes hearing it from a coach, you don't really understand it so hearing it from someone you're on the field with can really help you in that situation.
"I benefit a lot from having been in this defence for so long. It's a really great defence and I'm happy to be here but it also benefits me in being able to help coach the other guys. Hopefully I'm helping coach Mark get these guys up to pace faster."
And continually remind younger players to trust both the process and the defence.
"One of the best things I provide is I've seen a lot of offences, a lot of routes and concepts," Adeleke said. "The one thing I've noticed is these young guys are playing a lot off instinct and I'm like, 'Hey, you can make it a lot easier for yourself if you see them come out in this formation that you can do this and 90 per cent of the time they're going to come out with that.'
"It's going to take until the end of the season for us to be exactly where we want to be because we want to improve every game. But I think we're in a good spot right now."
NOTES -- American kicker Seth Small remains on Hamilton's suspended list, but Steinauer anticipates Small will rejoin the CFL team, "at some point, for sure." Small made 39-of-43 field goals (90.7 per cent, longest 58 yards) last season, his first in Canada, while scoring 143 points in 14 regular-season games. He also hit 26-of-27 converts attempted. Steinauer wouldn't say why Small wasn't with the club, adding "It's nothing crucial, it's all positive. We've known about this for some time so there was no element of surprise when it comes to Seth." Americans Jonathan Garibay and Ethan Ratke remain in camp with the Ticats.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press