Western University DL Deionte Knight looking to get on NFL radar at East-West Shrine Bowl

Photo courtesy: Brandon VandeCaveye / Western Athletics

In many ways, it is a tradition of anointment.

Every year since 1985 the East-West Shrine Bowl has selected players from Canadian university football to take part in its annual all-star game for draft prospects, catapulting on to the NFL radar a player that they otherwise might have ignored.

The results speak for themselves. Just this century, the game has earned NFL contracts for more than a dozen U Sports prospects. The list of those that stuck is an impressive one: 12-year NFL vet Israel Idonije, Olympic bobsledder Samuel Giguere, Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks, fourth round standout David Onyemata, Super Bowl champions like Dan Federkeil, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Antony Auclair, as well as young up-and-comers like Indianapolis Colts offensive tackle Carter O’Donnell and Seattle’s Pier-Olivier Lestage.

Depending on how the week goes, Deionte Knight may be adding his name to that list.

The Western University defensive lineman will be the only Canadian in Las Vegas for the game this year, the first solo representative since the cross-border initiative began with just Calgary’s Tom Spoletini in attendance 36 years ago.

The seventh ranked prospect on the CFL’s December scouting bureau rankings was a natural choice for selection after a season in which he claimed the J.P. Metras Trophy as the top lineman in U Sports football, an accolade shared by many of his NFL-bound predecessors. Before the season, however, it would have seemed a long shot side bet.

After a 2019 season plagued with injury and another year canceled due to COVID, Knight was not even ranked on the CFL’s initial September list. Now he’s arguable U Sports’ best pro prospect.

“Obviously, it would’ve been nice to have been on the list the last time and it definitely made me disappointed at the time, but we’re all human and I just took that as a challenge for myself to get better,” Knight said.

“Sure enough, I was able to have a pretty good year and help my team win a national championship after a pandemic year. It definitely was the most memorable year of my life. I’m really happy I was able to share it with an incredible team and incredible coaching staff.”

Knight led the nation with 7.5 quarterback sacks to go along with 19 tackles en route to Western’s 2021 Vanier Cup win. The fourth-year Arts and Humanities student also took a fumble recovery 12-yards for a touchdown in the Mustangs regular-season finale at Windsor.

The son of former Virginia Tech linebacker and CFLer Dewayne Knight, Deionte boasts an impressive six-foot-four, 275-pound frame and still rushed off the edge in the OUA. The speed and power he has for his size are a rarity in U Sports football and provide tantalizing versatility at the next level.

“I like to think of myself like a flex player, I think my skillset is pretty unique. I have the ability and confidence to rush from all four positions on the d-line. I feel like that’s what really stands out about my tape,” Knight explained, providing some big time comps.

“I play more like Shawn Oakman or for a guy in the NFL, some guy like Khalil Mack, who can play in multiple fronts. I think my speed-to-power game is gonna translate to whatever whichever DC needs me to play.”

He’ll have a chance to prove that he deserves to be in the same sentence as those players in Vegas, testing his mettle against some of the best the NCAA has to offer. Players arrived on Thursday with practices starting on Saturday, but Knight has been preparing for months.

“The biggest part is the mental aspect, in my opinion. I think going in the film and understanding the speed and understanding your opponent is crucial in the game of football. The mental aspect is definitely the part of my game that I’ve been focusing the most on this past month,” he noted.

“Obviously staying flexible and staying fast has also been my top priority in preparation for this game because the type of athletes I’m gonna be going up against there are going to be the best athletes in the world.”

The week will be Knight’s first real opportunity to speak with NFL teams, though some are already sniffing around and gathering background information from Mustangs coaches. Buzz could begin to build as soon as this weekend if he puts together a strong showing and fans will be able to see it all culminate next Thursday when the 97th East-West Shrine Bowl will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. EST on NFL Network.

It should be considered mandatory viewing for anyone hoping to see Canadian university football’s next NFL star.

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.