Six players to watch at the Ontario Regional Combine (and one wild card to shake up the draft)

Photo courtesy: Brandon VandeCaveye/Western Athletics

Most Outstanding Rookie Jordan Williams. Olympian Jacob Dearborn. Starters like Shaq Johnson, Jordan Hoover, Jermaine Gabriel and Shai Ross, as well as special teams difference-makers like Nigel Romick, Kerfalla Exume and Ante Milanovic-Litre. All these players have become recognizable names and all share one thing in common.

Their road to the CFL began at a Regional Combine.

CFL Draft season kicks off in earnest this Thursday with the first of three regional testing events, a chance for prospects on the fringes to earn an invitation to the National Combine in Toronto on March 25-27 or make a team fall in love with them enough to take a chance on draft day.

While these events are a chance for those completely under-the-radar to shock the league, 3DownNation will be looking ahead to each event with a list of the top prospects to watch and one wild card with a chance to surprise everyone.

Here is who you should know about at the Ontario Regional Combine in Waterloo tomorrow.

Photo courtesy: Kyle Rodriguez/Guelph Athletics

Jared Beeksma, LB, Guelph (Cambridge, ON)

Somewhat overshadowed by the All-Canadian final season put together by Saskatchewan Roughriders’ 2020 draft pick AJ Allen, Beeksma has been a highly-productive presence in his own right over the last two seasons at Guelph.

Listed at six-foot-two and 215 pounds, the 24-year-old weak-side backer has put up 81.5 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three sacks, three interceptions and five pass breakups in his two years as the starter. Beeksma possesses the type of skillset you look for in depth CFL linebackers: excellent instincts with the ability to key and diagnose concepts quickly and a knack for sorting through traffic to make a play.

With a solid frame, he packs a punch coming downhill and should be a mid-round selection for his special teams value.

Photo courtesy: Isabella Sheehan / Hillsdale College Athletics

Zach Herzog, DB, Hillsdale College (Windsor, ON)

Normally earning a spot on the CFL’s Winter Scouting Bureau rankings would equal an automatic invite the National Combine, but nineteenth Zach Herzog has some work to do.

When it comes to production, you won’t find a more dominant player in this draft than the standout from tiny Hillsdale College. He’s just the fifth player in the history of his school to be named first team All-Conference in three consecutive seasons and has twice crossed the 100-tackle threshold as a safety, but scouts are concerned about his size at a listed five-foot-nine, 192 pounds and about the level of competition he’s facing in a weaker D2 conference.

Herzog shows great range and flashes some explosive change of direction on tape, with a mental head-start that finds him around the ball time after time. Just how good any of those traits are objectively is incredibly difficult to judge until he’s side-by-side with players who are proven commodities.

Photo courtesy: Brandon VandeCaveye / Western Athletics

Spencer Hood, OL, Western (Ilderton, ON)

While sometimes Regional Combines are an exercise in finding testing darlings with freaky athletic traits, don’t expect Spencer Hood to excel in the underwear Olympics. He might just break somebody in half during one-on-ones though, and that can be equally impressive.

The very definition of a mauler, defenders are rendered helpless in the Vanier Cup champion’s grasp and he will finish you to the ground with prejudice. In a weak offensive line class, that little bit of nasty will carry the converted defensive lineman far.

Currently listed at six-foot-four and 299 pounds, Hood has been significantly heavier at points of his career and may show just enough added athleticism to earn an invite to the National if he shows up with that trimmer physique.

Photo courtesy: York Athletics

Daniel Loggale, DB, York (Edmonton, AB)

The York Lions will have an impressive contingent of defensive backs at the Ontario Regional, several with a legitimate shot to get drafted, but Daniel Loggale has something you can’t teach: length.

Six-foot-three, 196-pound, long-armed defensive backs don’t grow on trees, especially ones as surprisingly smooth in transition as the Edmontonian has shown himself to be. Loggale is under-the-radar due to an injury that limited him to just two games in 2021 and remains very raw, but teams bet on upside.

Photo courtesy: Gerry Fraser / Waterloo Athletics

Barnaba Niel, REC, Waterloo (Kitchener, ON)

Speaking of traits you can’t teach, scouts are certain to drool over the six-foot-five, 220-pound frame of Barnaba Niel as soon as he walks in the door.

The massive receiver has very little in the way of production at Waterloo and can appear stunted in the open field, but his physicality, ability to high point the ball and occasional flashes of explosiveness out of breaks will sell him as a developmental prospect. On Combine day, teams will be evaluating a block of clay that they can shape however they want, into a potential H-back convert or a starting receiver who’s pro career could be better than his college one.

That’s a gamble the Stampeders have taken in recent years with big-bodied targets like Julan Lynch, Richie Sindani and Luther Hakunavanhu. Could Niel be next in line?

Photo courtesy: Rick Zazulak / McMaster Athletics

Justice Allin, RB, McMaster (Toronto, ON)

In some circles, being a five-foot-nine, 180-pound Canadian running back is already disqualifying, but Justice Allin could be a testing standout in Waterloo.

The Marauder back has been feast or famine for stretches of his OUA career and tends to bounce outside more than you’d like, but he is undeniably fast and has a highlight reel full of hurdles. If he can pair that up with some fiesty, high-effort plays to make himself a thorn in the side of bigger players in the one-on-ones, a ticket to the National could be in the cards.

Photo courtesy: Esson Hamilton on Instagram

Wild Card: Esson Hamilton, REC, Wilfrid Laurier (Toronto, ON)

If you take a look at Esson Hamilton’s tape, there is no denying he is the fastest player on the field — and the competition ain’t close. The only problem is that tape came in 2018, the only season Hamilton played at Laurier as a college freshman.

He put up seven catches for 230 yards and two touchdowns in that campaign, showing off explosive ability that rivals the players at the top of this year’s draft board. If he has a fraction of that juice four years later, this receiver draft class may take on an entirely different complexion.

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.