Redblacks’ first-round draft pick Deshawn Stevens weighing jump to CFL against NCAA options

Photo courtesy: Maine Athletics

Will they or won’t they is usually reserved for TV shows and romantic comedies, but it’s a question that RNation will be asking themselves a lot in the coming weeks.

That’s because the Ottawa Redblacks selected University of Maine linebacker Deshawn Stevens with the sixth overall pick in the first round of the 2021 CFL Draft. In a normal year, this would be a run of the mill selection with little intrigue, but with the shadow of COVID-19 still looming, it’s much more complicated.

As a result of the chaos caused by the pandemic, the NCAA issued a blanket eligibility extension for all players at that level. Seniors who would normally see their careers end can return for another year and they took advantage in droves.

The CFL elected to keep those players in the draft pool and that left the top of the selection order loaded with ‘futures’ players, those who likely won’t be available to their team for at least a full calendar year.

Stevens is one of those players. An all-conference linebacker at Maine, he’s taken advantage of the extra eligibility to enter the transfer portal, searching for a new college home at the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision level in order to showcase himself for NFL scouts.

Thanks to a medical redshirt obtained after a torn Achilles in 2019, he could have two years left in college if he so chooses, but it isn’t that simple. Stevens may not even be a ‘futures’ pick at all.

“My decision is pretty open for the most part. I’m just waiting for an opportunity to come through the portal from any school in the FBS preferably — one and only, really — to give me an opportunity,” Stevens told reporters after the draft.

“It’s been really quiet for the most part. Until I get something that’s worth my attention, my full attention is dedicated to being a Redblack in the fall. Obviously, that’s what I’m feeling right now.”

Should a major FBS offer not appear, Stevens will jump immediately to the CFL and forgo the remainder of his eligibility, but his phone lines remain open. The Redblacks knew it, choosing to gamble at the top of the draft on a player they hope will arrive in training camp.

“He’s a physical player who moves very well for his size, may have to slim down a little bit for purposes of the CFL, but is going to be an instant contributor on special teams,” Ottawa general manager Marcel Desjardins explained.

“Great personality, a great guy to talk to. We really like everything he brings to the table and he’ll become a defensive stalwart for us at some point in the near future.”

When in the future that will be remains undetermined and the Redblacks now find themselves in a recruiting battle of sorts with any college football team which may choose to covet Stevens. It’s an unusual situation for a CFL team, though not an unprecedented one and recent history shows the advantage usually lies with the colleges and their promise of NFL exposure.

Stevens himself is biding his time, satisfied with either option. He won’t put a timeline on a decision, but also understands his choice to enter the portal late after playing a shortened four-game spring season for the Black Bears has placed him behind the eight ball.

“I don’t have a specific date, but just being at Maine I understand that by the summer — not even summertime, around this time and next month — is when most teams start moving forward with some workouts and that type of stuff,” Stevens admitted.

That means advantage Redblacks, but Desjardins isn’t looking to pressure his top pick in to a quick decision. With the CFL season delayed, they’ll bide their time and reap the rewards of their first-round gamble when he comes to them.

“That’s his decision to make and we respect that,” Desjardins emphasized. “We just know we got the rights to a very good football player who we hope will be with us come this training camp.”

When he does finally pull on the Redblacks jersey — whether it be in a few months, a year or even two — Stevens is confident RNation fans will think he’s worth the wait.

“Deshawn Stevens is going to be the best competitor you can be from day one. He believes he’s the best, he’s going to work to be the best of all time. He’s going to give you everything he can to make sure he can bring more and more championships, not just one, but as many as he possibly can,” Stevens explained.

“I’m a great team player. I love playing the game. You’re going to feel my passion, my presence, and I’m definitely trying to be part of the community, one way or another.”

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.