They call space the final frontier. Gene Rodenberry had clearly never investigated the promise of Japanese football.
As the CFL moves forward with it’s Global Combines, Greg Quick and his entourage have left the comfort of Europe for the uncharted territory of Japan and two days of testing in Tokyo on Saturday and Osaka on Sunday.
Japan is a year behind mainland Europe and Mexico in its awareness of CFL 2.0 and the testing list is relatively small, but the quality of Japanese football is unmatched. Japan boasts a robust college system and the professional X League, a strange mix of club teams and corporate teams made up primarily of employees. What is clear is that the Japanese are the most well coached players outside of North America and their annual Rice Bowl, a matchup between the college and X League champions for Japanese supremacy, draws well over 30,000 people consistently.
Getting full buy-in from the X League is a complicated endeavour. Teams have to individually agree to have players (often employees) participate and any player’s return to Japan post-CFL would involve the changing of a long-held X League rule preventing players with professional regular season games under their belt from participating. However, most of the top tier Super Area teams will be participating and the CFL has tied their Combine to tryouts for the Japanese National team, which is assembling to play The Spring League on March 1st. That small development league, which notoriously produced Johnny Manziel but also 50 other CFL players, was the first to partner with Japan and several players at the Combine are former Spring League players.
In my continuing mission to bring CFL 2.0 accessibility to the masses, I’ve spent the last week translating Japanese and looking for tape on this weekend’s prospects. The CFL has also admitted to the possibility of pulling players from the National team tryout that are impressive but did not sign up for the Combine in time, therefore the online Combine list is incomplete. It has been my biggest Global challenge yet, but I have done my utmost. Here are 12 names to be aware of this weekend.
Taku Lee, RB, Japan, Obic Seagulls
If you want the biggest X League to Spring League success story, it has to be 5’11 203lbs Taku Lee. The Obic star was rated the 6th best player in the X League by Inside Sports Japan going into this season and backed it up with an All-X League selection. He showed the same effective running ability against The Spring League, earning inclusion into the inaugural XFL Draft, though he went unselected.
Lee isn’t going to break any land speed records but he has good initial burst. At his core, he is a physical runner with powerful legs that rarely stop churning. Compact and hard to bring down, Lee has the balance to sustain his runs through first contact and the strength to deliver blows behind his shoulder pads.
A running back has yet to be invited to the National Combine and I fully expect Lee to be the first.
Tomoya Machino, OL, Japan, Kyoto University Gangsters
The second Japanese player to go unselected in the XFL Draft, Machino is the only non-X League player at this Combine.
A stud at Kyoto University, Machino had no plans to play football after school until former NFL first rounder and Hawaii offensive line coach Chris Naeole saw him at a clinic and told him he could play professionally in North America. Since then the 6’6 290-pounder has used his fifth year of university to train and add weight, showing off at XFL Showcase in St. Louis, the NFL International Combine in Germany and the College Gridiron Showcase this January. Machino was able to compete in one-on-ones at that final event and interviewed with scouts from four NFL teams, as well as the Edmonton Eskimos.
Machino is long and has sweet feet. His athleticism is what draws your attention to him, a trait you simply cannot coach. He is a young player with sky-high potential that needs development. Machino is still learning to deal with the physicality of the North American game and lacks power in his punch or pop in the run game. Those are things you can coach, and once Machino adds a bit more weight he’ll be a legitimate pro prospect.
Toshiki Sato, PK, Japan, IBM Big Blue
Japan’s top kicker, Sato holds the longest field goal in X League history at 58 yards. He is also remarkably accurate, going 12 of 13 last season and four for four during his tenure in The Spring League, including kicks of 49 and 54 yards.
We already know teams favour Global kickers and Sato could be next in line.
Takeru Yamasaki, PK, Japan, Elecom Kobe Finnies
I generally stay away from kickers on these lists because I know little about their assessment, but Yamasaki is another exception.
The Japanese prospect has a big leg, booting it from 65 yards in a practice setting. In a Spring League game, Yamasaki squeaked in a 57-yarder. He routinely hits 70 plus yards on kickoffs and has some experience punting as well, though that is not his strongest attribute.
Yoshihito Ohmi, REC, Japan, IBM Big Blue
The top receiver in Japan last season, Ohmi checks in at 5’11 180lbs but seemed to play much larger on his way to All-X League honours.
A long strider who can threaten down the field, Ohmi is a very clean route runner. That is a very typical trait for Japanese receivers but Ohmi separates himself with his physical style after the catch. He absorbs contact really well and isn’t afraid to gain the tough yards. He consistently looks for work as a blocker as well, something that will endear him to teams quickly.
Aruto Nishimura, REC, Japan, Obic Seagulls
The final Spring League alumni on this list, Nishimura was able compete against Americans despite being just 5’7 and 175lbs.
Another really good route runner, Nishimura is elusive after the catch. Sometimes that comes at his own detriment as he jukes and spins his way into some big contact. Nevertheless, rarely does the first defender contain Nishimura in space and he has the balance to maintain composure through some contact. He got a nice set of hands to go along with his athletic attributes as well.
Takashi Kurihara, REC, Japan, IBM Big Blue
This one is a bit of throwback. Kurihara has been on the NFL radar for a while. In 2013, he attended minicamp with the Baltimore Ravens. In 2015, he stole headlines at the NFL Veterans Combine with some blazing testing numbers. In 2017, he caught passes from Tom Brady as an UnderArmour ambassador in Japan. Now he’s pushing 32, retired from the X League and just finished up a 23rd place finish for Team Japan at the World Cup of Bobsleigh. Turns out ex-football players turning to the sled transcends all cultural barriers.
This is a last kick at the can for the 5’11 190lbs Kurihara, but in his prime you’d be hard pressed to find a more sudden athlete. Kurihara made defenders heads spin as he broke in and out of routes and had the blazing speed to threaten over the top. I’d say success is unlikely for the veteran due to his age, but the German Combine just saw a 30-year old offensive lineman earn his ticket to Toronto so anything is possible.
Kyohei Kokaji, REC, Japan, Fujitsu Frontiers
Quick footed and sudden, the 5’8 180lbs Kokaji was an integral part of yet another Japanese championship from the dominant Fujitsu squad.
A shifty and versatile weapon, Kokaji has one of the better releases off the line that I’ve seen, although sometimes he can get caught being too fancy. He is lethal against man and often isolated as a red zone threat due to his ability to separate, certainly an oddity for a small receiver. Kokaji backs up that separation with good body control and great tracking ability when the ball is in the air.
Takuya Iwamoto, LB, Japan, Obic Seagulls
A three-time All-X League selection at linebacker, Iwamoto was tailor made for the disciplined and finesse game they play in Japan.
Standing at 5’11 210lbs, Iwamoto isn’t going to punish opponents from the middle but he’s extremely positionally sound and a good form tackler. He shows obvious intelligence as a player, anticipating plays and filling holes. He is especially hard to get a second level block on, slipping under linemen to make a tackle.
Where Iwamoto truly excels is as a zone defender, often times playing like a safety. That might be where he fits at the next level, able to make tackles in space and anticipate routes. Regardless, I like his upside on special teams.
Akira Shirane, REC, Japan, IBM Big Blue
At 6’2 190lbs, Shirane is big for a Japanese receiver and should stand out visually at the Combine.
Not quite as twitchy as some of the other receivers on this list, Shirane is still a clean looking runner. He has learned to exploit his frame against Japanese opponents, shielding the ball from defenders. He is a long threat used for the jump ball and has a strong set of hands to go along with his physical attributes.
Katsushi Suda, CB, Japan, Obic Seagulls
An All-X League selection at corner, DBs in Japan don’t come bigger than Suda’s 6’0 190lbs. He’s got extremely long arms for his size as well, making for a physical package that stands out on tape.
Suda is a lockdown defender in the X League, excelling in off man coverage where he can shadow and anticipate. He likely has to play more of a safety role at the next level. His build might be nice for special teams, but I have serious questions about his ability as a tackler that kept him lower down this list.
Shogo Nakatani, FS, Japan, IBM Big Blue
Nakatani is a do-it-all safety who has played high, dropped into the box and covered man-to-man. Opportunistic and anticipatory, Nakatani has made a living off his instincts and has the traits of a ball hawk.
At 5’11 210lbs, Nakatani has decent size and could be an effective special teams contributor, although his long speed is a question mark for me.