Abbott’s 2020 NCAA All-Canadians: Defence

Football fans may have already turned their attention from Alabama’s historic rout of Ohio State on Monday and onto the NFL Divisional Playoffs, but we still need to put the finishing touches on the 2020 NCAA All-Canadian team.

Due to length, I’ve released my post-season NCAA honours in two parts. Tuesday, I took you through college football’s brightest Canadian offensive stars, but today we end with a defensive bang.

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 level of college football. This year, with the gross majority of teams below the FBS level canceling their fall seasons, there is only enough for one team.

That necessitated some 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.

Without further ado, here are the sack artists, heavy hitters and ball hawks that made Canada proud in 2020.

Defence

Defensive Interior

Olivier Charles-Pierre, Senior, Houston Cougars (Laval, Que.)

This was a tough decision. Olivier Charles-Pierre was only a situational player for the Cougars and some of the other candidates for this spot had double the play time and much more pass rushing upside. A player can only be judged on how he does his job, however, and few Canadians do theirs better than the 370-pound gap plugger from Laval.

Photo courtesy: Stephen Pinchback | Houston Athletics

Charles-Pierre’s stat line doesn’t leap off the page — just eight tackles and two quarterback hurries in 148 defensive snaps over the course of the season — but good luck moving this human atlas stone out of position. He finished the year with an impressive PFF grade of 77.6, a mark that raised to 82.7 against the run. While Charles-Pierre’s girth might limit his pro options this summer, he’s just the space-eater we needed on this team.

Mohamed Diallo, Redshirt Senior, Central Michigan Chippewas (Toronto, Ont.)

OK, I’ll admit it — this is just pure cheating on my part. Diallo did his work almost entirely on the edge this year, but the Canadian edge defender class this year was so good that I’m moving the six-foot-four, 305-pounder inside to honour as many as possible.

The first-team All-MAC defender is the type of player you bend the rules for as Diallo was an absolute game-wrecker in four games for the Chippewas.

Photo courtesy: Benjamin Suddendorf | Central Michigan Athletics

How good was Diallo? In less than half as many games as the other All-Canadian defensive linemen, he burst through the line for 9.5 tackles for loss, just a tackle away from tying the national lead.

Overall, Diallo made 19 tackles, three sacks, two quarterback hits and five hurries while forcing and recovering one fumble. The end result was a PFF grade for his short season of 81.1, the highest overall grade by any Canadian in 2020.

Honourable Mentions: Alex Dumais, R-SO, Fresno State (Montreal, Que.); Samuel Obiang, SO, Texas State (Ottawa, Ont.)

Edge Defender

Daniel Joseph, Redshirt Senior, NC State Wolfpack (Toronto, Ont.)

In a banner season for Canadian pass rushers at the highest level of college football, one Canuck rose above the rest and for most observers and he came out of nowhere. A graduate transfer from Penn State, Daniel Joseph had five career sacks to his name in three years as a bit player for the Nittany Lions. In just one season at NC State, he broke out with 6.5 sacks and 30 total quarterback pressures to lead his countrymen in both categories.

Photo courtesy: NC State Athletics

Joseph amassed 37 tackles and 10 tackles for loss in 11 games as a starter for a ranked team, but he also leads the All-Canadian defensive line in another category. PFF credits the Torontonian with 25 defensive stops, defined as a tackle that constitutes a situational loss for the offence.

When Joseph made his presence felt, it was routinely backbreaking for the opposition. That’s the type of player you want coming off the edge.

Akheem Mesidor, Freshman, West Virginia Mountaineers (Ottawa, Ont.)

Most high school football players take a few years to get their legs underneath them at the college level and players coming from the great white north rarely make an impact right off the bat. That’s exactly what makes Akheem Mesidor so special.

Joining a top-tier defensive line unit that includes consensus All-American Darius Stills, the young Canadian made plays from day one on his way to becoming a second-team All-Big 12 selection.

Photo courtesy: West Virginia Athletics

In limited rotational snaps along the defensive front, Mesidor made the exceptional look routine. In 10 game, the true freshman racked up 32 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 13 total pressures, but where he really excelled was finishing on quarterbacks.

Mesidor’s five sacks ranked him second in the country among true freshman and he was also the freshman silver medalist in pass rush productivity according to PFF. Mark down the name because Mesidor may have a permanent spot on this team for years to come.

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Honourable Mentions: Tyrell Richards, R-JR, Syracuse (Brampton, Ont.); Isaiah Bagnah, R-FR, Boise State (Lethbridge, Alb.)

Linebacker

Amen Ogbongbemiga, Redshirt Senior, Oklahoma State Cowboys (Calgary, Alb.)

In the eyes of many voters, there are two legitimate candidates for the 2020 Cornish Trophy. One is Alabama receiver John Metchie III, the other is Amen Ogbongbemiga. The senior from Calgary surpassed teammate Chuba Hubbard as Oklahoma State’s top Canadian this year, anchoring a defence that was often forced to compensate for a struggling offence.

Photo courtesy: Bruce Waterfield | OSU Athletics

Like his name suggests, opponents were often praying that Ogbongbemiga wouldn’t get his hands on them. As the team’s defensive leader and captain, he made 80 tackles, five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, finishing with 41 stops that PFF considered wins for the defence, a number that ranked 20th in the country among all defensive players.

It was in a matchup against TCU that Ogbongbemiga really put on his hero cape however, forcing three fumbles and recovering two himself with relentless play. The end result was All-Big 12 second team honours and an offseason of intrigue where CFL teams will hope desperately that he falls through the NFL cracks.

Geoff Cantin-Arku, Sophomore, Syracuse Orange (Levis, Que.)

This was, without question, the most difficult decision I had to make for this team. There is plenty of argument to be had that Jesse Luketa deserves this spot, playing much more consistent football on a better team, and I almost went that way. At the end of the day though, I simply couldn’t ignore the high end flash plays on Cantin-Arku’s resume.

Photo Courtesy: Syracuse Football

While the more positionally sound Luketa notched the higher PFF grade, the sophomore from Quebec’s fast and loose style saw him lead in virtually every statistical category. He made 63 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks and finished second among Canadians with 18 total quarterback pressures.

Cantin-Arku also forced two fumbles and became the only Canadian defensive player to score a touchdown this year when he scooped up a loose ball against Duke. Often worn down on a bad Syracuse team, Cantin-Arku’s big play ability makes up for his flaws.

Honourable Mentions: Jesse Luketa, JR, Penn State (Ottawa, Ont.)

Cornerback

Benjamin St-Juste, Redshirt Junior, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Montreal, Que.)

If you made a corner in a lab, you still might not be able to come up with Benjamin St-Juste. Standing at six-foot-three and 205-pounds, the Montrealer moves like a much smaller player and oozes intelligence and leadership. Able to play in just five games in 2020, St-Juste was still Canada’s best corner this season.

Photo courtesy: Eric Miller | University of Minnesota Athletics

With the exception of a high scoring game against Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa, St-Juste shut down a side of the Minnesota defence this year. He finished with 14 tackles and three pass breakups, while receivers caught just 11 of the 20 passes sent his way. With a solid PFF grade of 72.4 and a degree already under his belt, its no wonder why the physical specimen declared for the 2021 NFL Draft.

Deane Leonard, Senior, Ole Miss Rebels (Calgary, Alb.)

This was another agonizing choice. Ottawa’s Patrice Rene played significantly more snaps than Leonard did in his first NCAA season and performed at a similar level, but once again fell victim to injury and has entered the transfer portal after being phased out at the end of the year.

Leonard began the year as a U Sports transfer, heading to the SEC after an All-Canadian career with the Calgary Dinos, but his stock trended up all season and it was his fabulous finish to 2020 that clinched this spot.

Photo courtesy: Bruce Newman | SEC Media portal

Stepping into the best conference in college football straight from Canada West takes some getting used to, Leonard gave up his first and only touchdown on one of his first targets in his debut, but by season’s end the Dinos starter had become Ole Miss starter. In eight games, he made 14 tackles and broke up four passes, while recovering one fumble for 84 yards that got U Sports fans buzzing.

Twice in his final three games, Leonard recorded PFF games of over 70.0 and in his Bowl game start against No. 11 Indiana, he notched a 76.6 coverage grade, second highest on the team. With another year of eligibility to take advantage of, you can expect Leonard to be U Sports best recruiting tool in 2021.

Honourable Mention: Patrice Rene, R-SR, North Carolina (Ottawa, Ont.)

Flex Defender

Jett Elad, Redshirt Freshman, Ohio Bobcats (Mississauga, Ont.)

Modern defence means stopping the pass and over the last decade traditional base defences have been replaced with the heavy use of nickel and dime packages. Good teams need someone who can cover the slot and this All-Canadian squad has a great one in Jett Elad.

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Photo courtesy: Ohio University Athletics | Midge Mazur

Elad has the smallest resume by far of any player on this All-Canadian team, Ohio played just three games and he was in the defensive package for just 86 snaps. Still, in that short time Elad managed to tie the Canadian lead in interceptions with two big takeaways. To that number he added two pass breakups and 11 tackles, allowing a passer rating of just 41.0 when targeted. Already posting a PFF coverage grade of 72.3 as a redshirt freshman, Elad could evolve into the MAC’s best slot corner over the course of his career.

Safety

Alonzo Addae, Redshirt Senior, West Virginia Mountaineers (Pickering, Ont.)

In an unpredictable year, Pickering’s Alonzo Addae should be considered one of college football’s best surprises. The transfer from New Hampshire sat out 2019 under NCAA regulations and then burst onto the scene in Week 2 with arguably the most acrobatic interception of the year, a play that earned a spot on the SportsCenter top 10. From there, Addae didn’t miss a beat and ended the season as a second team All-Big 12 selection.

Photo courtesy: West Virginia Athletics

In 10 games, Addae added another interception to tie for the Canadian lead with two, broke up five passes, forced a fumble and made 66 tackles. He earned a particular reputation for hellacious shots on special teams with eight solo tackles in that department, good enough to tie for third in the NCAA. With a PFF grade of 79.1, there isn’t much to critique about Addae’s performance, but he still isn’t satisfied and has elected to return for a second senior season. Opponents must shudder to think what Addae will do next.

Enock Makonzo, Redshirt Junior, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (LaChine, Que.)

Enock Makonzo is a jack of all trades. As a starter for the Chanticleers, he lined up all over the field. Makonzo took 127 snaps lined up off the edge, spent 193 down low in the box and helped out in the slot on another 380. Listed as a linebacker and playing the “Spur” role in his defence, for our purposes I’ll consider the five-foot-eleven, 195-pound versatile defender a box safety worthy of a spot on this team.

Photo courtesy: Coastal Carolina

It’s not just Makonzo’s versatility that stands out. The LaChine product was key to Coastal Carolina’s historic Top 25 season that had fans furious over a lack of playoff consideration before a loss to Liberty in Bowl season burst their perfect season. Makonzo finished second among Canadians with 76 tackles but led the country with 10.5 tackles for loss.

That is quite the accomplishment for the lanky JuCo product and he added two sacks, two forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries to a break out season. While they came out of nowhere this year, no one will be sleeping on Makonzo and the Chanticleers in 2021.

Special Teams

Punter

Jake Julien, Senior, Eastern Michigan Eagles (Barrie, Ont.)

Like a few other players on this All-Canadian team, Jake Julien was the only player from north of the 49th parallel to ply his trade at his position this season, but that shouldn’t take away from his prowess at the position. In six games, the boot from Barrie kicked 16 times for an average of 44.3 yards that led the Mid-American Conference.

Photo courtesy: Eastern Michigan Athletics

Julien performed well in some of the more advanced statistics as well. In the all-important category of net yardage, Julien ranked 18th in the nation with an average of 42.8 yards per kick. With a respectable average hang-time of 3.73 seconds and just four yards allowed on returns by his team all season thanks to his kick accuracy, Julien will be highly sought after in the upcoming 2021 CFL Draft.

Coverage Player

Jonathan Sutherland, Redshirt Junior, Penn State Nittany Lions (Ottawa, Ont.)

There is an argument to be made that despite rotational play time on defence, Jonathan Sutherland’s standard of performance could have earned him a spot on this team as a safety. He narrowly missed out, but when a player has such an impact on special teams that he makes an iconic program like Penn State start a new tradition, you have to carve out a spot for him.

Photo courtesy: Penn State Athletics | Mark Selders

The Nittany Lions decided to begin annually honouring a special teams player who is a “tough, dependable, disciplined, physical leader who inspires teammates with his accountability and production” with the number 0 for the season.

In other words, they reserved a jersey just for Jonathan Sutherland. The team captain is a key contributor on all major special teams units, finishing with an excellent PFF grade of 75.8 in that area and three total tackles.

He grew as a defensive player as well, making 14 tackles, two tackles for loss and two pass breakups as a package player. A core locker room guy with a coveted skillset, CFL teams are already drooling at the prospect of adding Sutherland in 2022.

Honourable Mention: Ben Labrosse, FR, Syracuse (Greenfield Park, Que.)

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JC Abbott
Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.