CFL draft profile: defensive back Stavros Katsantonis, UBC

Photo courtesy: Rich Lam/UBC Thunderbirds
Photo courtesy: Rich Lam/UBC Thunderbirds

Stavros Katsantonis
Defensive back

Height: 5’9
Weight: 190
Hometown: Bakersfield, California

Statistics: 43 games, 205 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 18 interceptions, 16 pass breakups

It’s hard to make a nickname stick while playing U Sports football. Crowds are sparse, television coverage is spotty, and large media outlets rarely cover games. When a nickname becomes commonly known, it is usually a testament to a player with unique skills and elite production.

Canada, meet the Bakersfield Bandit.

Stavros Katsantonis burst onto the scene at UBC as a true freshman and earned his reputation as a ball-hawking defensive weapon. He recorded 41 tackles and four interceptions en route to being named the Thunderbirds’ defensive MVP in the Vanier Cup.

Though he grew up in the sunny California Valley, that Vanier Cup ring was the second in the Katsantonis household.

“My dad was born in Edmonton,” says Katsantonis. “He came out to Bakersfield through football and played at the junior college here, which was where he met my mom. Together they headed out to the University of Calgary, where he played a few years and ended up winning a Vanier Cup in 1988.”

“Unfortunately, he had a career-ending back injury that put him out of football. It was also a record blizzard year in Calgary, so my mom said ‘Back to California!’ That’s where I ended up growing up.”

Katsantonis was raised with a close connection to Canada, spending family vacations in B.C. and Alberta and supporting the Maple Leaf during the Olympics. He had no inkling that his football future would lie north of the border but, without any serious Division One offers, U Sports suddenly became an option.

Though the free safety originally planned to walk on at the University of Washington, his dad still kept up-to-date with the University of Calgary Dinos. He knew that highly-touted Coach Blake Nill had left for Vancouver and reached out on his son’s behalf.

“I owe all of it to my father. Without him I wasn’t even looking at Canada. He sent my film off and the rest is history.”

That history is one of the most productive defensive back careers in the annals of Canadian University football. That success did not come without challenges for a kid learning a new style of football. His first snap on a Canadian field led to a Manitoba touchdown thrown right over his head.

“It was tough for me at first, learning the nuances of the Canadian game. I thought I was going to come up there and start right away. Getting that reality check from a physical and mental standpoint just really helped to push me and build new things in that program.”

While some fans resent pseudo-Canadians being included in the CFL draft, Katsantonis has embraced his new home more than many young Canadians who depart for U.S. prep schools and never return. He even suited up for the Canadian National Team in the 2016 International Bowl against the Americans in Texas. He was Canada’s defensive captain and won the team MVP after covering future Kansas City Chiefs’ receiver Mecole Hardman and picking off future first-round pick Dwayne Haskins.

“I sang both national anthems that game,” laughs Katsantonis.

“I recognize my Canadian history and background — that’s also a part of my life, too. With my dad being from Edmonton, him being a first-generation Canadian and his parents coming over as Greek immigrants after World War Two looking to start a new life. I owe a lot to them. If they never came there, I definitely wouldn’t have this same story.”

That feel-good story came to a screeching halt last year. After impressing CFL scouts at the CFL’s national combine, Katsantonis’ urine sample came back positive for a performance-enhancing drug, SARM LDG-4033. That meant a four-year ban by U Sports and the deferment of his CFL draft year.

“Leading into my draft year and combine prep, I was taking a few different supplements — creatines and proteins. Upon research after the positive test, I find out that if a supplement has a proprietary blend, they don’t have to list everything in that blend on the label.”

“At the end of the day, I’m responsible for what I put into my body and it was my fault not doing the due diligence to really research what was in those supplements. I take ownership of that and I’ve learned from it.”

The suspension was devastating for the hard-working Katsantonis and he admits it took him a while to fully recover. Ultimately, the situation has sparked a change in the way he trains his body.

“As of the summer of last year, I just stopped taking any supplements, outside of some Vitamin C and oregano oil. I know now that I can get all that stuff from eating normally. There is creatine in red meat.”

He considers himself a cautionary tale of what happens when you are negligent about what you put into your body.

“You can go into any of these supplement stores and the shelves are full of things you’ve never even heard of. If you don’t do the due diligence of researching your items, which is something I didn’t do, then you are falling victim to stupidity.”

While a positive PED test might affect a scout’s evaluation of a player’s physical attributes, Katsantonis remains unique in his mental approach to the game. No Canadian player in recent memory has possessed his elite instincts or his nose for the football.

While many might consider that an innate attribute, Katsantonis believes it to be a by-product of his commitment to film study.

“I just follow the defence’s schematics, really study my opponents. I think the biggest work I put in is during the week in the film room. That’s where I live. You can ask Coach [Pat] Tracey [UBC’s defensive coordinator]. I was in there every day in his office, sitting there picking his brain.”

“The schematics is what I love about the game of football — being able to out-manipulate, out-plan and out-script offences and learn their schemes. That way when Saturday comes, I know if they’re lining up in this three-by-two formation with the back offset right, they’ll pass 90 percent of the time to the boundary.”

Katsantonis prides himself on a deep understanding of his defence. He knows where every player is going to be on every snap, which allows him to play with alignments, bait throws and drive on the ball with certainty.

“To other people it looks like I’m taking a huge risk to make a play, but actually I consider myself very calculated.”

Physically, the three-time All-Canadian barely cracks the five-foot-nine mark, but he has a zest for the physical side of the game. His height held him back in the recruiting process and has been a major talking point for CFL teams, but Katsantonis wouldn’t change it for anything.

“I think if I was a little bit taller I wouldn’t have that same tenacity that I have now in terms of commitment to football. The type of player I am and the character I’ve built is because of my height.”

With plenty of time on his hands due to his drug suspension, Katsantonis has spent it improving his game by teaching the next generation.

“I was helping coach at a local high school here in Bakersfield called Bakersfield Christian. Darren Carr is the head coach and [former first-overall NFL draft pick] David Carr is the offensive coordinator.”

Katsantonis spotted from the booth while the team won a division three state championship. In down moments, he picked the brain of the former Houston Texans starter and his brother Derek — now the starter for the now Las Vegas Raiders — whenever he came to visit. He’s been training at the Carr Elite facility in Bakersfield since he was in high school.

“Just a great family, all three of those brothers. They welcomed me with open arms to their training facility and to coaching — just teaching me things in life, really. I’m very thankful for them.”

The Carrs aren’t the only elite quarterbacks in Katsantonis’ life, either. Whenever they are both in town, the UBC star will work out with his former high school teammate Jordan Love, who was a first-round selection of the Green Bay Packers in Thursday’s NFL draft.

“He was a year younger than me. My senior year I caught passes from him, playing a little offence as a slot receiver. He’s my guy.”

In the CFL, Katsantonis believes he can be just as elite as his NFL-bound teammate.

“I truly believe that I am a first-round draft pick. Obviously there are other athletes out there and this isn’t any disrespect to the other prospects in the draft. Everyone deserves a fair chance and a fair observation, but in my mind I’m the best defensive back in the draft. No one comes close to me — you can just check out the production.”

Anonymous quote from a CFL scout: “He’s small, which limits his special teams value, but Katsantonis plays smart and physical from the safety spot. Flat out playmaker.

Projected Round: 3-4

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.