Abbott’s 2021 NCAA All-Canadians: Defence

Photo courtesy: Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

As the University of Georgia Bulldogs showed last week, defence still wins championships. While we may not have as many five-star prospects as the national champions, the great white north has a crew of dynamic defenders as good as any in college football.

For the third straight season, I’ve tracked every Canadian player in the NCAA all year long with the goal of honouring the very best and brightest with an All-Canadian selection.

Last year, just 79 Canadians were able to participate in a fall football season. This year — counting the heavy Canadian contingent at Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University — there was well over 200 playing across the FBS, FCS, Division 2, and Division 3 levels.

The quality of Canadian contributions were so strong that I was able to assemble three full teams of athletes, up from just one a year ago. That didn’t make the selection process any less difficult, but it is important to note that this list is an acknowledgement of excellence in college production. It does not serve as an evaluation or a ranking of these player’s professional prospects, and while level of competition was a consideration, it was not the most important determining factor in selection.

On Monday, I unveiled my All-Canadian selections on offence. Today, we wrap it up with a star-studded defensive unit full of NFL Draft hopefuls.

* indicates 2021 CFL Draft pick

Edge Defender

Photo courtesy: Penn State Athletics

First Team: Jesse Luketa, Senior, Penn State Nittany Lions (Ottawa, ON)

We think of Jesse Luketa as an off-ball linebacker, but his career best year in 2021 came after Penn State rolled him down to play on the edge and mitigate the issues he had in coverage last season.

After rushing the passer just 48 times the past three years, he went after it 232 times this season. With just a half sack and 12 pressures to his credit, Luketa won’t be confused for elite in that area, but quickly became one of the Big Ten’s best run defenders. He notched 61 total tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss to go along with a pick six. That earned him an impressive 82.4 grade from data analytics firm ProFootballFocus and a spot in the prestigious Senior Bowl ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Photo courtesy: Wake Forest Athletics

Luiji Vilain, Super Senior, Wake Forest Demon Deacons (Ottawa, ON)*

The most difficult All-Canadian team selection, this spot came down to a heated debate between Vilain and NC State’s Daniel Joseph. Joseph deserves full credit for leading all Canadians with 43 total pressures, but it is the national sack leader that earns this spot for getting things done with less opportunities.

Selected 25th overall last year by the Toronto Argonauts, Vilain had played just 156 total snaps in his entire Michigan career. He returned to school and transferred to Wake Forest, playing 513 snaps in a breakout campaign as a primary pass rusher. He produced 34 pressures and nine sacks for a ProFootballFocus pass rush grade of 81.8, while adding 34 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

Second Team: Daniel Joseph, Super Senior, NC State Wolfpack (Toronto, ON)* / Francis Bemiy, Junior, Southern Utah Thunderbirds [FCS] (Montreal, PQ)

Third Team: Isaiah Bagnah, Redshirt Sophomore, Boise State Broncos (Lethbridge, AB) / Mo Diallo, Super Senior, Arizona Wildcats (Toronto, ON)*

Defensive Interior

Photo courtesy: All Pro Photography / Dale Sparks / West Virginia Athletics

First Team: Akheem Mesidor, Sophomore, West Virginia Mountaineers (Ottawa, ON)

After a stellar freshman year spent playing on the edge, Akheem Mesidor bumped inside this season and his production didn’t suffer.

In 13 starts along the West Virginia defensive line, Mesidor racked up 38 total tackles and eight tackles for loss, while mustering 4.5 sacks and 33 pressures as a pass rusher. That earned him a ProFootballFocus pass rushing grade of 75.6, along with honourable mention All-Big 12 status.

Photo courtesy: Thomas Corhern / Tennessee Tech Athletics

Kail Dava, Sophomore, Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles [FCS] (Mississauga, ON)

It takes talent from all over to put together the best possible All-Canadian team and we head to Cookeville for the first non-FBS member of the first team.

Mississauga’s Kail Dava owned the B gap in 11 games this season, making 22 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a pair of sacks, while adding a pivotal forced fumble in one game. Due to his level of competition, ProFootballFocus only graded nine of his performances, but he was credited with 15 pressures and a 78.1 grade across those outings.

Second Team: Lwal Uguak, Senior, UConn Huskies (Edmonton, AB) / Quintin Seguin, Senior, North Dakota Fighting Hawks [FCS] (Windsor, ON)

Third Team: Samuel Obiang, Sophomore, Texas State Bobcats (Ottawa, ON) / Jaiden Cruz, Junior, Dickinson College Red Devils [D3] (Ajax, ON)

Linebacker

Photo courtesy: Malik Melton / Tuskegee Athletics

First Team: Woodly Appolon, Junior, Tuskegee Golden Tigers [D2] (Montreal, PQ)

It was a decidedly down year for Canadian linebackers at the Division 1 level, but that allows us to honour some highly deserving candidates in the lower tiers. Chief among them is Woodly Appolon, who transferred from Northern Illinois to Division 2 HBCU Tuskegee this past season to play side by side with his twin brother Wesly.

The pair were dynamic, with Wesly gaining a spot on the All-Canadian second team. His brother was slightly more productive however, recording 79 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, an interception and a pair of pass break-ups in 11 outings.

Photo courtesy: Simon Fraser Athletics

Griffin Barrett, Senior, Simon Fraser University [D2] (Moose Jaw, SK)

Often forgotten as his team languishes atop Burnaby Mountain, Griffin Barrett has quietly put together an outstanding collegiate career with 308 tackles to his credit. While his return to the field after a year-long absence didn’t quite match his 2019 production, it would seem wrong not to send the Moose Jaw product off to graduation with a first team selection.

While SFU managed just one win, Barrett held down the fort with 98 total tackles, a tackle for loss, and a fumble recovery. That was the second highest mark by a Canadian this season and he did it over the course of just an eight games, meaning the honourable mention All-GNAC linebacker was averaging a whopping 12.25 tackles per game.

Second Team: Wesly Appolon, Junior, Tuskegee Golden Tigers [D2] (Montreal, PQ) / Geoffrey Cantin-Arku, Junior, Syracuse Orange (Levis, PQ)

Third Team: Melique Straker, Sophomore, Arkansas State Red Wolves (Brampton, ON) / Caden Shannon, Redshirt Junior, Minot State Beavers [D2] (Calgary, AB)

Flex Defender 

Photo courtesy: Coastal Carolina

First Team: Enock Makonzo, Redshirt Senior, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (LaChine, PQ)

There were plenty of tough choices when assembling the All-Canadian teams, but Enock Makonzo as the flex defender was not one of them. The very definition of versatility, the Chants’ most underrated player played 216 snaps as an edge defender, 267 as a box linebacker, and added another 193 as a slot corner.

Wherever he was lined up, Makonzo did his job at an extremely high level. The third ranked prospect in the 2022 CFL Draft made 71 tackles and 10 tackles for loss, forced three fumbles, produced 11 QB pressures, and allowed just 108 yards passing on 30 targets his way. That earned him a ProFootballFocus grade of 75.9 on the season.

Second Team: Jett Elad, Redshirt Sophomore, Ohio Bobcats (Mississauga, ON)

Third Team: Brendan Lowry, Senior, Simon Fraser University [D2] (Okotoks, AB)

Cornerback

Photo courtesy: Bruce Newman / Ole Miss Athletics

First Team: Deane Leonard, Super Senior, Ole Miss Rebels (Calgary, AB)*

If you are a Canadian football fan, nothing warms your heart quite like Deane Leonard. In the span of two years, the former Calgary Dinos’ standout has gone from the best coverage man in U Sports to a legitimate starter in the SEC and you have a feeling he’s not done impressing.

After being drafted 18th overall by the Ticats last year, Leonard returned to Oxford and started 11 games in his final season, making 50 tackles and breaking up seven passes. Going against the very best competition that college football has to offer, he allowed 387 yards and two touchdowns against to earn a 68.2 grade from ProFootballFocus.

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates / Simon Fraser Athletics

Jerrell Cummings, Sophomore, Simon Fraser University [D2] (Vancouver, BC)

The second corner spot on this team was another subject of heavy debate, but in the end one simple truth emerged: Jerrell Cummings is elite, regardless of where he plays.

In 2019, Cummings burst onto the scene as the GNAC’s Freshman of the Year with 18 pass breakups. He managed only seven this year, mainly because teams stopped throwing towards the lone first team All-GNAC honouree on SFU’s defence. He still added 32 tackles and a forced fumble in eight games, and those questioning his place on this list need only look at his lock down performance against the FCS Idaho Vandals. He was SFU’s highest graded player in that game, making eight tackles while not allowing a single catch.

Second Team: Kenan Clarke, Senior, Cornell Big Red [FCS] (Pickering, ON)* / Ethan Yip, Freshman, William & Mary Tribe [FCS] (Surrey, BC)

Third Team: Pierre Kemeni, Redshirt Freshman, Ohio Bobcats (Milton, ON) / Patrice Rene, Super Senior, Rutgers Scarlet Knights (Ottawa, ON)*

Safety

Photo courtesy: David Craan / Illinois Athletics

First Team: Sydney Brown, Junior, Illinois Fighting Illini (London, ON)

All-Canadian honours often run in the family, as both the Appolon and Johnson brothers have made this list previously, but only one set of siblings finds themselves both on the first team. That would safety Sydney Brown and running back Chase Brown, identical twins playing big roles at the University of Illinois.

Somewhat overshadowed by his brother’s thousand-yard campaign, Sydney also had the best season of his career according to ProFootballFocus. Often down in the box as the team’s strong safety, Brown led the Illini with 81 tackles, adding 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two forced fumbles and three pass breakups. That was enough to earn him honourable mention All-Big Ten status.

Photo courtesy: Isabella Sheehan / Hillsdale College Athletics

Zach Herzog, Redshirt Junior, Hillsdale College Chargers [D2] (Windsor, ON)

Conventional wisdom would expect to see West Virginia’s Alonzo Addae in this spot, but he never quite reached the same heights in the follow up to his incredible 2020 season. Instead, first team honours go to the best Canadian NCAA player you’ve never heard of.

Just the fifth player in school history to earn first team all-conference honours in three consecutive seasons, five-foot-nine Zach Herzog has been nothing short of spectacular for tiny Hillsdale College. Able to do it all in the secondary, he amassed 105 tackles in 12 games this season, more than any other Canadian at any level of competition. With a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss, a pick, six pass break-ups and a pair of forced fumbles to go along with that, those in the know weren’t surprised to see Herzog slip into the CFL Scouting Bureau’s rankings this past week at number 19, the only Division 2 player on the list.

Second Team: Alonzo Addae, Super Senior, West Virginia Mountaineers (Pickering, ON)* / Jeremie Dominique, Senior, Charleston Golden Eagles [D2] (Montreal, PQ) 

Third Team: Kolby Buljevic, Junior, Simon Fraser University [D2] (Burnaby, BC) / Jonathan Sutherland, Redshirt Senior, Penn State Nittany Lions (Ottawa, ON)

Special Teamer

Photo courtesy: Manny Flores / North Texas Athletics

First Team: Jaylen Smith, Freshman, North Texas Mean Green (Hamilton, ON)

No All-Canadian team would be complete without a dominant special teamer and in Jaylen Smith, we have one of the very best in all of college football.

In his true freshman season, the Hamilton native made eight solo tackles and added three assists in kick coverage. His 11 combined special teams tackles tied him for sixth in the nation, good enough for a ProFootballFocus grade of 78.1.

Second Team: Deshawn Stevens, Super Senior, West Virginia Mountaineers (Toronto, ON)*

Third Team: Keegan Markgraf, Super Senior, Utah Utes (Hamilton, ON)*

Honourable Mentions

ED Tavius Robinson, Senior, Ole Miss (Guelph, ON) / ED Carter Maurice, Freshman, Minnesota-Morris [D3] (Boissevain, MB) / ED Isaac Evans, Senior, Simon Fraser [D2] (Coquitlam, BC) / ED Paris Shand, Redshirt Freshman, Arizona (Toronto, ON) / ED Thomas Thibault, Junior, Columbia [FCS] (Quebec, PQ) / DI Xavier Thibault, Senior, Columbia [FCS] (Quebec, PQ) / DI Dorian Royal, Freshman, Maine [FCS] (Quebec, PQ) / DI Justin Sambu, Junior, Maine [FCS] (Calgary, AB) / S Evan Currie, Sophomore, Simon Fraser [D2] (North Vancouver, BC)

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.