Assembling Canada’s Olympic football team: defence & special teams

From the 100-metre dash to the triathlon, the Summer Olympics show us the human body pushed to its absolute physical limit.

The speed, the skill and the strength of the athletes chosen to represent their countries is unrivalled, but there is still one test of physical will missing: gridiron football.

But what if that wasn’t the case? Here at 3DownNation, we dare to dream.

Yesterday, I unveiled my offensive selections for a hypothetical Team Canada football roster at the Tokyo Olympics. Today, it’s time for the defence and special teams, unquestionably the tougher of the two groups to whittle down.

First, a refresher on the selection rules. In this hypothetical world, the NFL and CFL have followed the lead of the NHL and NBA to allow all eligible players to participate. The tournament itself is under IFAF’s American rule book with their standard 45-man rosters. That means sometimes positional versatility will outweigh pure talent.

Unfortunately, there is no tolerance for doping at the Olympics, so those with recent WADA violations won’t be allowed to compete. That meant Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ running back Andrew Harris wasn’t on yesterday’s list and NFL defensive tackles David Onyemata and Nathan Shepherd are ineligible for today’s.

For our own purposes, we will also exclude the recently retired and those who have not yet received the citizenship they are eligible for, like NFL safety Taylor Rapp. The talent pool is simply too deep to play with hypotheticals.

After flipping back and forth a few times, it was decided that Team Canada will operate primarily out of a 3-4 look to best take advantage of our personnel. The players chosen and their starting positions reflect that schematic choice.

The process of choosing the team was an agonizing testament to the quality of Canadian content. In fact, six players currently on NFL rosters didn’t make the cut and neither did several CFL All-Stars. After the offensive selections, 24 roster spots remain available.

Without further delay, here is your Team Canada defence.

Starters denoted with *

Nose Tackles

Neville Gallimore, Dallas Cowboys (Ottawa, Ont.)* — Gallimore typically plays three-technique, but the 307-pounder is plenty strong enough for the nose in this system and is sure to flash as a pass rusher in this tournament.

Eli Ankou, Buffalo Bills (Ottawa, Ont.) — There is an argument that a true run-stuffing nose like Ankou is limited in our hypothetical Olympic format, but someone still has to two-gap. The 325-pound UCLA product is also the likeliest candidate to jump over to the offensive line if an injury crisis emerges mid-tournament.

Defensive Ends

Brent Urban, Dallas Cowboys (Mississauga, Ont.)* — With the retirement of Tyrone Crawford, the 30-year-old Urban becomes the veteran star on this defensive line and is a proven contributor at 3-4 defensive end.

Michael Hoecht, Los Angeles Rams (Oakville, Ont.)* — Perhaps a controversial starter, the 310-pound Hoecht is on the heavy side for this role but his crazy athleticism has buzz mounting that he’s going to replace 260-pound Morgan Fox as a third-down pass rush specialist next year in LA. Team Canada will happily include that often in the rotation.

Christian Covington, Los Angeles Chargers (Vancouver, B.C.) — Don’t let the lack of a starter label fool you, the son of Canadian Football Hall of Famer Grover Covington is going to see the field a lot in this Olympic rotation. He might just be the next man up at every defensive line spot.

Kwaku Boateng, Edmonton Elks (Milton, Ont.) — Boateng is more of a 3-4 outside linebacker and he’ll get in the rotation there plenty, but of all the tweeners on this team I trust the Ghanaian-born pass rusher the most if I need him to get up field quick from the five-technique.

Outside Linebackers

Mathieu Betts, Edmonton Elks (Montreal, Que.)* — A player poised for a CFL breakout in 2021, Betts is pure effort and pursuit off the edge. The former third overall draft pick should be a game changer.

Cameron Judge, Toronto Argonauts (Montreal, Que.)* — You need an outside linebacker on your team that can drop into coverage and lay the lumber on a speed rush. Canada lacks traditional size at this position, but Judge is enough of an athlete to overcome it.

Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund, Calgary Stampeders (Dartmouth, N.S.) — Most would argue former five-star recruit Jonathan Kongbo deserves this spot over a CFL rookie, but I beg to differ. Kongbo posted just three sacks in three years playing SEC football at Tennessee. In just two career games playing against SEC competition at Southeastern Louisiana, Adeyemi-Berglund had four.

Boseko Lokombo, B.C. Lions (Abbotsford, B.C.) — A versatile piece who can help us in multiple roles, Lokombo edged out strong candidate Chis Ackie to be Judge’s primary back-up. He’s also one of six first-generation immigrants to make this squad, hailing from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Inside Linebackers

Alex Singleton, Philadelphia Eagles (Thousand Oaks, Calif.)* — Sure, Singleton is a Canadian by passport only, but he’s embraced the country like few others. After proving himself an NFL starter last year, he’ll be the star of this defence.

Henoc Muamba, Toronto Argonauts (Mississauga, Ont.)* — There was no debating whether the reigning Most Outstanding Canadian would make this roster. Born in Kinshasa, Congo, the 32-year-old Muamba is among the most veteran members of this squad and will be leaned on for leadership.

Amen Ogbongbemiga, Los Angeles Chargers (Calgary, Alta.) — There was an argument to be made for the athleticism of Canadian passport holder Jordan X. Williams at this spot, but it wasn’t going to come at the expense of the 2020 Jon Cornish Trophy runner-up. Born in Nigeria, Ogbongbemiga has simply been too productive to ignore.

Cornerbacks

Benjamin St-Juste, Washington Football Team (Montreal, Que.)* — Get drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft, start for Team Canada. Those are the rules, I just follow them. St-Juste’s size also makes him a candidate to move to safety if the injury bug strikes.

Tevaughn Campbell, Los Angeles Chargers (Scarborough, Ont.)* — The fastest player in the history of the CFL combine and a former prospect for Canada in Rugby Sevens, Campbell will earn himself an international cap on the gridiron.

Arjen Colquhoun, Toronto Argonauts (Windsor, Ont.) — Not long ago, corner would have been a weak spot on this roster. With starting caliber players like Colquhoun as backups, that’s true no longer.

Deane Leonard, Ole Miss Rebels (Calgary, Alta.) — Elie Bouka almost took this spot for his versatility, but then the question was asked: who would the Calgary Dinos’ coaches dub their best DB in recent memory? That’s unquestionably Leonard, who also inched out Patrice Rene in the decision-making process.

Strong Safeties

Antoine Pruneau, Ottawa Redblacks (Laval, Que.)* — At 31, Pruneau is still a difference-maker at the CFL level and has experience playing down in the box. Plus, Team Canada needed a leader of its own ‘French Mafia’ and nobody is better suited.

Enock Makonzo, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (LaChine, Que.) — When the president of Football Canada pounds the table for you, you’re making the roster. A favourite of Jim Mullin for his versatility, Makonzo did everything for a Coastal Carolina team that captured national attention. He can play up high, in the box, off the edge or cover the slot, becoming a chess piece that beat out other leading candidate Mike Edem.

Free Safeties

Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins (Coquitlam, B.C.)* — The first safety off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft at 36th overall, Holland provides the ballhawk that the team was missing. He’ll start at free safety, but likely moves down to cover the slot in nickel packages.

Alonzo Addae, West Virginia Mountaineers (Pickering, Ont.) — If Holland moves to the nickel, you need a starting caliber free safety to sub in for him seamlessly up high. Luckily, Team Canada has a star in the making in second team All-Big 12 defender Alonzo Addae.

Specialists

Tunde Adeleke, FS/KR, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Ottawa, Ont.) — Providing valuable depth at defensive back, Adeleke makes this team for his ability to change a game as a returner. While he doesn’t get to do it much in the CFL, the Nigerian-born safety sits eighth all-time in U Sports return yardage and housed two punt returns as a rookie with the Stampeders.

David Mackie, FB/LS, B.C. Lions (Jackson’s Point, Ont.) — Yes, David Mackie doesn’t actually long-snap in the CFL but he was a talented one coming out of Western and provides versatility that no other long-snapper will. Expect to see him at fullback and tight end in addition to his special teams duties.

Lirim Hajrullahu, K/P, Free Agent (St. Catharines, Ont.) — A Kosovan refugee, Hajrullahu is the clear choice here as an NFL-calibre leg who can perform all three kicking jobs. He also holds a special distinction on this Olympic team as the only member of the 2011 IFAF World Championship squad to suit up for Team Canada a second time.

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