Breaking down the Canadian performances at the College Gridiron Showcase

Photo courtesy: College Gridiron Showcase

Since 2015 the College Gridiron Showcase has kicked off the major NCAA football all-star circuit in the lead up to the NFL Draft.

While it lacks the primetime cache of events like the Senior Bowl, more than 600 prospects have used the CGS as a springboard to the professional level and 12 participants in the event were drafted into the NFL last year.

The list of alumni range from successful NFL players like Jakeem Grant, Matt Breida, George Odum, and Kene Nwangwu to American CFL stars like Reggie Begelton, Dane Evans, Anthony Cioffi and Ricky Collins Jr., but the showcase has also played a key role in the CFL’s Canadian draft.

Since its inception, the CGS has targeted Canadian prospects playing on both sides of the border in high numbers, giving those players the opportunity to state their case to NFL teams against elite competition and allowing CFL teams to see how they stack up against the best.

Last year, the CGS hosted a total of seven eventual CFL draft picks, and in 2022, that number is set to increase even more. A grand total of 16 Canadian prospects made their way to Fort Worth, TX to put their talents on display for more than 120 scouts from across the NFL, CFL, XFL and USFL. Over the course of four days, each participated in official weigh-ins, interviews with scouts, and a series of Organized Training Activity style practices culminating in a final scrimmage, and this 3DownNation correspondent was there for all of it.

Yours truly headed down to Texas as part of my work with All22 — The Global Scouting Network, a consulting service for players and teams globally that had partnered with the event. It gave me a front row seat to watch my fellow countrymen kick off their draft process. Now that I have returned to the Great White North, it’s time to officially open CFL Draft season with my observations from the week.

What is important to note is that all-star games are not a direct reflection of a player’s talent. In a short period of time, prospects must enter a high-pressure environment, learn an unfamiliar system and attempt to execute it by working with complete strangers whom they have no chemistry with. Because of this, scouts place a much higher value on performance in drills and one-on-ones at these events than what happens in team sessions.

For many of the Canadians, especially those coming from U Sports, these challenges are amplified by having to learn an entirely new style of game on the fly. There was a steep learning curve for those in attendance, but all improved as the week went on.

While my primary interest was to see how 2022 CFL Draft prospects would perform, it was a pair of 2021 draftees that unquestionably captured the most buzz among the assembled scouts. NC State defensive end Daniel Joseph, taken fourth overall by the B.C. Lions, and Wake Forest defensive end Luiji Vilain, taken 25th overall by the Toronto Argonauts, both opted to return for their extra COVID year and it has paid off in terms of NFL interest.

The pair were among the week’s standouts on the defensive line and you could see it translate into a serious opportunity south of the border. This is especially true for Vilain, who had barely played during his career at the University of Michigan before transferring to become a Demon Deacon. He burst onto the scene with 10 sacks this year and I lost track of how many people I heard say “the kid from Wake Forest is legit” during the week. Both players came in with high expectations and delivered.

The two defensive ends were not the only 2021 prospects in attendance. On Tuesday, Eastern Michigan’s Jake Julien, the 31st overall pick by the Ottawa Redblacks, showed off his skills as a punter in the specialist workout. He seemed to separate himself from the pack and looked to be receiving a high degree of interest from high ranking USFL executives after the fact, as well as from a few NFL teams.

The week also presented an opportunity for a pair of undrafted Canadian quarterbacks to state their case for a CFL opportunity. Idaho’s Mike Beaudry, born in Regina, was the first Canuck to arrive in Texas, taking part in the Small School Showcase, before being promoted to the main event. Checking in at over six-foot-four and a whopping 262 pounds at the official weigh in, Beaudry flashed the arm strength that saw him continue to get opportunities in college, but did little to change the assessment that CFL teams made on him last year when he went unselected.

Beaudry was joined on the Desperados team by Calgary Dinos’ quarterback Josiah Joseph, a long-time backup who got his first chance at the helm in his final U Sports season. For Joseph, the invitation to a US college all-star event should be viewed in and of itself as a tremendous accomplishment, but he struggled at times throughout the week and showed a somewhat limited arm.

The Canadian quarterback that everyone wanted to see was Waterloo’s Tre Ford, the reigning Hec Crighton trophy winner and sixth ranked prospect in the latest scouting bureau rankings. For years, Ford’s status as a CFL quarterback prospect has been hotly debated — with some evaluators still wanting to convert him to receiver — but his performance in Texas should cement him as a passer.

For Ford, the important part of the week began with the official weigh-ins, something that the whole crew of Canadian prospects almost missed while trying to get return COVID testing done. Height and weight have always been knocks against Ford and measuring in at five-foot-eleven and-a-half will not do him any favours, but he has added weight since the season and checked in at 200 pounds. Teams will still want him thicker, but that he was able to add weight without losing a step checks an important box.

Throughout the week, Ford looked as good as any quarterback there. The ball jumps off his hand and he made a couple of tremendous throws in skelly that could not have been placed any better. Entering the scrimmage day, I was expecting big things, but unfortunately that’s where the Canadian faltered. Faced with a live 11-man defence for the first time, Ford simply wasn’t seeing it as a passer and struggled to go through his reads.

Mercifully, it was the first time all week that he was allowed to use his legs and those did not disappoint. Ford took off three times for big yardage, juking out Division I athletes in space or simply outrunning them. The difference-making athleticism that made him a star in the OUA withstood the jump in competition level and should have people very excited for the CFL Combine 40-yard dash.

Joining Tre in Fort Worth was his twin brother Tyrell, the ninth ranked prospect on the CFL’s latest list and the headliner of an impressive contingent of Canadian defensive backs. Like his brother, there were highs and lows for the Waterloo corner, but after a Day One of practices that saw him look more than a little shell-shocked, I thought he settled in nicely.

Though he lacked the length and frame of many American prospects, Tyrell looked great in transition over the final two days and adapted to the high volume of man coverage he was asked to play extremely well. His steady improvement is exactly what you want to see at this type of event and he has all the movement skills you want from a top calibre CFL DB.

Three other Canadian defensive backs were also in attendance, though Maine corner Shaquille St-Lot was still nursing an injury and couldn’t take the field. The remaining two are names that are likely unfamiliar to even the more educated CFL Draft followers, but will be highly regarded come draft day.

Montrealer Jeremie Dominique, who played at Hawaii and North Dakota before settling down at DII Charleston last year, was faced with an unusual challenge when his equipment was lost while shipping. He participated in practice by borrowing those of a teammate and probably shouldn’t be faulted for looking like a guy in the wrong size helmet. He appeared to get the issue sorted on scrimmage day, nearly picking off a Ford pass.

More intriguing for draftniks like me was the presence of Eric Sutton, a Texas State nickel corner born in Canada while his dad of the same name was playing with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Sutton hasn’t been back since months after his birth, but he now holds the right passport to be a CFL national.

Sutton is likely to be one of the draft’s more polarizing prospects, with big time college production at both SMU and Texas State, but a tiny frame at five-foot-nine and 167 pounds. That size made him hard to locate at times in the mess of practice at the CGS, but he certainly passed the eyeball test when spotted, demonstrating the quick feet, fluid hips and instincts that made him a five-year contributor in major college football.

Staying on the defensive side, for some Canadians the week was more of a learning experience than it was a coming out party. In the case of Calgary linebacker Subomi Oyesoro, Day One looked to be an eye-opener in terms of the speed and power he would have to face in Texas.

At a shade under six-foot and 211 pounds, he looked a little out of place and was initially slow in transition, though he got his feet back under him in later practices. He was never afraid to get his nose dirty, but unfortunately came out worse for wear on a couple of missed tackles. While the outing was a little disappointing from the backer, his tape shows he is much better suited to the Canadian game.

Queen’s defensive end Anthony Federico, now the 15th ranked prospect in the draft, was another who had some struggles. Arguably the best pass rusher in U Sports over the past couple of years, he looked like a player used to winning on his first move and found himself stonewalled for stretches when he didn’t attack with a good enough rush plan.

Despite weighing in at a respectable 241 pounds for a CFL end, Federico looked a little thin and could benefit from adding more power to his frame before the combine, though he also needs to get more active with his hands.

The two Canadians on the other side of the trenches did not disappoint. After facing off in the Vanier Cup, Western’s Zack Fry and Saskatchewan’s Noah Zerr were tied at the hip this week and those I spoke to couldn’t quite decide who they liked better.

As was to be expected, the speed of the competition caught each of them out of position on a few reps in pass protection, but both big men stuck at tackle and neither looked the slightest bit out of place. Both Fry and Zerr had some tremendous reps as run blockers and cemented their already well-established status as elite people movers, proving why they were named the eighth and tenth best prospects in the draft, respectively.

While the two big men were impressive, it was two other top 20 prospects that have to be considered the big winners of the week. Undoubtedly the most impressive was Calgary receiver Jalen Philpot, the second ranked prospect in the draft, who arrived in Fort Worth without his twin brother Tyson, who was unable to attend.

At just over six-foot and 190 pounds, Jalen was dwarfed by many prospects and had the expected struggles against American-style press coverage, reps of which would often merit a flag in Canada. When he was afforded off-coverage however, you were hard-pressed to find a more sudden and explosive receiver in and out of his breaks than Philpot.

Time and again he flashed in the one-on-ones and his week culminated with a three-catch outing in the final scrimmage, making him among the day’s most productive players. If it wasn’t a guarantee already, I’d expect an NFL camp invite for both Philpots and Jalen certainly proved to be the type of player that’s hard to ignore in those settings.

If Philpot’s performance was expected, the biggest riser among the Canadians came entirely out of left field. Ranked 17th by the CFL, McGill defensive end Josh Archibald had originally exploded onto the scene in 2019 with 6.5 sacks, but returned after the canceled 2020 season overweight by his own admission, the product of him incorrectly trying to bulk to 265 pounds. His performance in 2021, particularly in the first half of the year, suffered accordingly and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to see from him in Texas.

He entered the week at a slimmed down 248 pounds and it became almost immediately apparent that Archibald had gained back his initial quickness. Like all the U Sports prospects, Archibald had moments of difficulty but also flashed some of the week’s more impressive pass rush reps, showing jump off the line, a high motor and the ability to set up tackles for his next move. He played with a sort of unhinged energy, at one point turning the corner on a top tier tackle in one-on-ones and spinning around to taunt him before finishing the rep.

None of the U Sports prospects in attendance interviewed with an NFL team, but both Philpot and Archibald seemed to separate themselves. Only time will tell what that means for the pro futures of those who made the trek down to Texas, but each has now stated their case to begin the draft process.

Four CFL teams had a notable presence at the event, with Winnipeg and Montreal — led by general manager Danny Maciocia — bringing the most robust contingent and engaging in interviews with all of the Canadians. While the CGS is unlikely to be a deciding factor in any of those teams evaluation processes, it will be yet another data point that informs how they view these prospects.

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.