Abbott’s 2020 NCAA All-Canadians: Offence

The 2020 NCAA football season has been long, chaotic and sometimes problematic, but it finally reached its conclusion Monday night when the University of Alabama hoisted the National Championship trophy.

Late last summer, with borders closed, international student visas revoked and the pandemic raging at its first of several peaks, it seemed as if no Canadians would be plying their trade south of the line under the bright lights of the NCAA, even in conferences that hadn’t canceled their seasons.

Instead, Canadians overcame tremendous adversity to put together a banner season collectively. 79 players left the safety of home to suit up for their respective schools, among them a number of impact performers. It’s now time to honour the best of those athletes.

When I put together my first-ever NCAA All-Canadian team last year, I was able to make two full squads incorporating players from all levels of college football. This year, with the gross majority of teams below the Football Bowl Subdivision level canceling their fall seasons, there is only enough for one team.

That necessitated hard choices, but the players selected are the cream of the crop, star contributors at elite programs. Where appropriate, I’ve included honourable mentions at certain positions, players who were locks for a second team or that I thought long and hard about including.

Due to length, the All-Canadian team will be divided into two parts. Check back on Thursday for the defensive reveal. For now, check out the offensive stars that dazzled American viewers while making Canadians proud.

Offence

Quarterback

Kurtis Rourke, Redshirt Freshman, Ohio Bobcats (Oakville, Ont.)

This is a bit of a de-facto honour. Pandemic cancellations by other programs with Canadian signal callers left Rourke as the only Canuck to take a snap under centre in 2020.

Former UBC backup and current Arizona walk-on Cameron Fietz was the only other Canadian QB rostered, but he did not dress this season.

Still, Rourke showed plenty of potential in just three games in a two-quarterback system in Athens and left us wanting more.

Photo courtesy: Abigail Dean | Ohio Athletics

The six-foot-three, 211-pound redshirt freshman will never be mistaken for his free-wheeling, never-say-die scrambler of an older brother, but he already shows better downfield arm talent than the two-time Cornish Trophy winner and B.C. Lions draft pick.

Brought along slowly in what amounted to an extra season that the Bobcats failed to finish due to a COVID-19 outbreak, Rourke was an efficient 30-of-44 for 386 yards and three touchdowns as a passer. That’s not a season-long stat-line that would typically make headlines, but the big time throws Rourke made when given a clean pocket projects very well for future success.

With another off-season under his belt and still plenty of room to fill out his frame, the MAC better watch out in 2021.

Running Back

Chase Brown, Redshirt Sophomore, Illinois Fighting Illini (London, Ont.)

2020 was a changing of the guard as there will be a new top Canadian running back in the NCAA heading into next season.

In his second season since transferring to Illinois from Western Michigan to join his identical twin brother, London’s Chase Brown started out as the second option in a two-back system. That arrangement didn’t last for long, however, as his relentless combination of power, balance and explosiveness quickly made him the Illini’s feature weapon on the way to an All-Big Ten third-team selection.

Photo courtesy: Michael Glasgow | Illinois Athletics

In eight games, Brown rushed 104 times for 554 yards and three touchdowns while adding 64 more yards through the air. Averaging just over 5.3 yards per carry, Brown helped his team to 29 first downs, busted 17 runs of 10 or more yards and broke 20 tackles while grinding out an average of 3.26 yards after first contact.

All of it was good enough to earn a solid 75.0 grade from Pro Football Focus and set Brown up as one of the biggest names to watch for in 2021.

Chuba Hubbard, Redshirt Junior, Oklahoma State Cowboys (Sherwood Park, Alb.)

Much has been made of Chuba Hubbard’s disappointing 2020 season as he heads off to the NFL next year, but sometimes we all need a little perspective.

Sure, it wasn’t the two thousand-yard Heisman run he put up as a sophomore, but we are still talking about a kid from Bev Facey High School rushing for 625 yards on 133 carries in one of football’s premier conferences. For that reason, this All-Canadian team will be going old school with two players in the backfield.

Photo courtesy: T.C. Brewster | OSU Athletics

It may seem like small fries compared to a his first-team All-American nod in 2019, but Hubbard’s 4.7 yards per carry helped an often struggling Oklahoma State offence to 35 first downs. His six touchdowns — five on the ground and one through the air — still ranked him tied as the leading scorer among Canadians in 2020.

There were still flashes of brilliance as well, including a 32-yard touchdown against Iowa State that was as good as any play from scrimmage this season. Hubbard busted 16 runs of 10 or more yards to go along with 22 broken tackles. It wasn’t the season the Canadian Cowboy hoped for, but he can head into the 2021 NFL Draft knowing he made his country proud.

Receiver

John Metchie III, Sophomore, Alabama Crimson Tide (Brampton, Ont.)

College football has a new northern star and his name is John Metchie III. The Brampton native was a complete unknown on the best team in the country coming into 2020, but the sophomore quickly became a major part of a super-charged Alabama offence with a knack for big plays at crucial moments.

First there was the 181-yard, two touchdown performance to vanquish the eventual No. 5 team in Texas A&M. Then a clutch onside kick recovery to seal a shootout win over Ole Miss. Finally, there was the earth-shattering forced fumble on an interception return against Florida that helped keep the SEC Championship at home in Alabama.

All of this is the reason why Metchie became the first Canadian to win a National Championship since Pete Dyakowski did it with LSU in 2003, playing a pivotal role in the Crimson Tide’s dominant victory.

Photo courtesy: University of Alabama

In 13 games, Metchie accumulated 55 catches for 916 yards and six touchdowns, all tops among Canadians. Not only that, but any highlight tape of Heisman Trophy winner and fellow Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith isn’t complete without a shot of Metchie driving a helpless defender out of the stadium with a block to set his teammate loose on the screen or underneath route, as he did again in the College Football Playoff.

While Smith will get the accolades this year, it’s no surprise that when the early odds for the 2021 Heisman race started leaking out of Vegas last week, Metchie’s name was 20th on the list at +2400. Get your bets in early.

Josh Palmer, Senior, Tennessee Volunteers (Brampton, Ont.)

While Metchie exploded onto the scene this year, the Flower City’s mark on the SEC actually started four years ago with Tennessee’s Josh Palmer. The Canadian carved out a nice career for himself since then and 2020 was his time to shine as the Volunteers’ undisputed top target.

Unfortunately for him, it couldn’t have come at much worse a time, with the Volunteers suffering from a serious case of bad quarterbacking. Still, Palmer did enough to earn himself a spot on this team.

Photo courtesy: Kate Luffman | Tennessee Athletics

In ten games, Palmer managed to haul in 33 passes for 475 yards, almost double the yardage of the next best receiver on his team. What got him on this team over a player with similar yardage — like Virginia’s Terrell Jana — was Palmer’s four touchdowns and the type of competition they came against in the SEC.

Palmer competed against future NFL corners week after week and didn’t look out of place once, even hauling down one score after winning a battle in the end zone with projected 2021 first-rounder Patrick Surtain II of Alabama.

It’s that type of flash play that saw Palmer selected to participate in the Senior Bowl — college football’s most highly regarded all-star game — later this month, following the footsteps of fellow Canadian Chase Claypool to try and rise up NFL draft boards at the event.

Honourable Mentions: Terrell Jana, SR, Virginia (Vancouver, B.C.); Jared Wayne, SO, Pittsburgh (Peterborough, Ont.)

Tight End

Bruno Labelle, Redshirt Senior, Cincinnati Bearcats (Montreal, Que.)

When you’ve got two star running backs on your team like we do on this All-Canadian squad, you are going to need an impact blocker at tight end to get them loose. There are few players in college football better suited to that task than Cincinnati’s Bruno Labelle.

The six-foot-four, 248-pound bruiser actually set all new career-highs with 10 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in 2020, but what he has always done best is tossing around defenders in the run game.

Photo courtesy: UC Athletics

Though a nagging knee injury suffered against SMU saw Labelle suit up for only seven of the Bearcats’ 10 games, the Montrealer was a key piece in an offence that averaged more than 212 yards per game on the ground and pressed for inclusion in the college football playoff conversation.

Even at less than 100 percent, Labelle did plenty of manhandling that doesn’t show up on a box score. Overall, in the eyes of Pro Football Focus he finished with a run blocking grade of 73.8 and a pass blocking grade of 73.4 as a starter on a dominant team. Any CFL team in need of a good H-back is licking their lips.

Honourable Mention: Theo Johnson, FR, Penn State (Windsor, Ont.)

Offensive Line

Alaric Jackson, Redshirt Senior, Iowa Hawkeyes (Windsor, Ont.)

You are going to hear a lot of buzz about Canadian NFL Draft prospects in the coming months but the one player you aren’t going to hear enough about is Windsor’s Alaric Jackson.

The six-foot-six, 315-pound left tackle who played his high school ball in Detroit is just the latest in a string of high-profile Hawkeye linemen to head to the pros. While he won’t get the hype of former teammate Tristan Wirfs, he’s an easy selection for this team.

Photo courtesy: Brian Ray | HawkeyeSports.com

A unanimous All-Big Ten selection in every poll, Jackson locked down Iowa’s blindside by only allowing two sacks and 13 total pressures while protecting an inexperienced quarterback. Jackson was a mover in the run game as well, helping Iowa average 177.29 yards per game on the ground.

Overall, it was an exceptional season that earned Jackson a 74.4 grade from PFF and a spot in the Senior Bowl, where he’ll keep doing what he does best against the best in the nation.

Sidy Sow, Redshirt Junior, Eastern Michigan Eagles (Bromont, Que.)

Sidy Sow doesn’t get the respect he deserves.

The third-team All-MAC left guard is one of the most consistent Canadians in college football and he was as good as anybody in 2020. In six games for Eastern Michigan this year, he allowed just five total pressures, including one sack for what would have projected as a career year in a full season.

Photo courtesy: EMU Athletics

There simply wasn’t a weak point to Sow’s game this season and the hulking six-foot-five, 335-pounder finished with a PFF grade of 75.6 as a difference-maker on a 2-4 team that still averaged more than 33 points per game. The future is bright for the Bromont native and you’ll be sure to find him near the top of the 2022 CFL Draft rankings.

Dontae Bull, Redshirt Junior, Fresno State Bulldogs (Victoria, B.C.)

Fresno State was a tough place to play left tackle this season. In a pass-heavy Bulldogs offence, quarterback Jake Haener hung onto the ball for an average of 2.77 seconds per play, the ninth longest in college football.

It’s little wonder then why Victoria’s Dontae Bull gave up 11 total pressures and two sacks in his four starts before his season was lost to injury, fighting it out against the Mountain West’s best pass rushers for long stretches on an average of 45 pass sets per game.

Photo courtesy: Samuel Marshall | Fresno State Athletics

When he did get a chance to attack, Bull took full advantage of his six-foot-seven, 335-pound frame to impose his will. The only dominant run blocker on a poor rushing team, Bull finished with a PFF run blocking grade of 75.3 and will enter next season at the top of many draft boards and with plenty of skill to be a dark horse NFL selection.

Matthew Bergeron, Sophomore, Syracuse Orange (Victoriaville, Que.)

It’s not easy to be a starting tackle for a bad team in a good conference and Matthew Bergeron experienced every peak and valley in 2020.

The true sophomore out of tiny CEGEP Thetford started out as the Orange’s right tackle, then swapped to the blind side after three games while his team ran the ringer of a full 1-game season loaded with ranked opponents, including playing two of the four playoff bound teams.

Photo courtesy: Syracuse Athletics

The results were predictably mixed. Bergeron surrendered four sacks and 15 total pressures while committing eight penalties, but the young Quebecer also held his own against top-tier competition repeatedly. The most remarkable accomplishment? An 82.3 single-game pass rushing grade against Clemson. If that’s not an omen of good things to come, I don’t know what is.

Daniel Johnson, Redshirt Sophomore, Kent State Golden Flashes (London, Ont.)

Like many people in 2020, Daniel Johnson couldn’t catch a break this year. His bad luck isn’t enough to keep him off this team because there simply aren’t any other starting-caliber players to choose from. The converted tight end from London is definitely that but he only suited up for three games this season.

Photo courtesy: Kent State Athletics

Johnson started the opener at left tackle, couldn’t make the trip the next week, swapped to right tackle in the third game and then suffered a season-ending injury just three plays into the fourth game, unfortunately while giving up a sack.

That’s a rough way to go out, but there was a silver lining. That sack was Johnson’s first and only pressure allowed in 72 pass blocking snaps this season, resulting in a PFF pass blocking grade of 81.6 for his two starts. That’s a small sample size, but elite numbers. Here’s hoping we see more of it next year.

Honourable Mention: Matt Krzysztalowicz, SR, Nebraska-Kearney (Burlington, Ont.)

Special Teams

Kicker

Gabe Siemieniec, Redshirt Senior, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (Caledon, Ont.)

This is another de-facto selection. There wasn’t a single Canadian kicker that sent a ball through the uprights in 2020, so Siemieniec gets the nod for helping his team in another way.

Photo courtesy: Louisiana Tech Athletics

A graduate transfer from the University of California-Berkley, Siemieniec arrived in Ruston to try and win a starting job for the first time in his career. A hot-footed freshman closed that door, but Siemieniec still contributed by doing what he’s always done: boom kick-offs. Siemieniec finished the year as the conference leader in that department, smashing 48 kicks for an average of 58.2 yards and 19 touchbacks.

Long Snapper

Keegan Markgraf, Redshirt Senior, Utah Utes (Hamilton, Ont.)

There was only one Canadian snapper working south of the border this year but another candidate wasn’t needed.

 

Keegan Markgraf counts himself as one of the best specialists in all of football and was named as one of ten semifinalists for the Patrick Mannelly Award in 2020, given annually to the best senior snapper.

Photo courtesy: Utah Athletics

Markgraf simply didn’t miss on 47 snaps on punts and field goals, a crucial part of a unit that hit all eight of its field goals and all 17 point-afters through five games. When discussing elite Canadian players at their position, Markgraf has to be in the conversation.




Must Read