Unlikely NFL prospect Tre Ford gives CFL Combine a Canadian QB storyline unlike any other

Photo courtesy: Christian Bender/Waterloo Warriors

For the first time in the history of the CFL Combine, a quarterback is the talk of the event.

While players like Andrew Buckley, Noah Picton and Michael O’Connor have all entered the annual prospect showcase with a certain degree of notoriety, 2021 Hec Crighton trophy winner Tre Ford is in a category of his own. The dual-threat University of Waterloo pivot may well prove to be the most impressive athlete in downtown Toronto this weekend — bar none — and that’s before you factor in his ability to throw the football.

Ford already dazzled scouts at the University of Buffalo pro day on March 17, where the national-calibre track star laid down an impressive 4.45 forty-yard dash. That was faster than the top time produced by potential first-round pick, QB Desmond Ridder at the 2022 NFL Combine and Ford equaled the University of Cincinnati product with a 36-inch vertical and ten-foot, five-inch broad jump.

The Warriors’ star has little left to prove to scouts athletically and may bow out of some drills this weekend, but that won’t stop the growing buzz that he could become the first U Sports quarterback to sign an NFL contract since the University of Toronto’s Dan Feraday was drafted by the Bengals in 1982.

Even as NFL attention grows, not all CFL talent evaluators who will be watching in Toronto believe Ford has what it takes to be a successful quarterback at the professional level. His athletic tools make him an enticing player regardless, but there are questions about his smaller stature, slight frame and whether he can read the defence well enough from within structure to not be overly reliant on his legs.

Ford’s supporters correctly point out that tired refrain has long been levelled at mobile Black quarterbacks, driven by evaluator’s internal racial biases. However, in the inexact science of projecting quarterback, those criticisms could also exist in a very real capacity, with real world ramifications.

Judging the pro football merits of U Sports passers is already a difficult task for CFL decision makers — one that many would argue they’ve skewed far too conservatively on in the past. For any NFL team that should fall in love with Ford’s skillset, there will simply be no precedent for the projection.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats assistant general manager and director of Canadian scouting Drew Allemang is one of the few to have seen Ford in a pro football environment, having watched him in training camp with the Ticats as part of the U Sports QB internship program back in 2019. Even with that prior experience around CFL talent, the long-time scout notes that the leap to the pro game will be huge and it will only get larger if his opportunity south of the border comes to fruition.

“From a schematic standpoint, he’s going to have to learn a different playbook and go through game plans that change from week-to-week. Also, the game speed is going to be a lot different, in terms of his timing, anticipation, all those kinds of things, throwing different routes,” Allemang explained at the National Combine. “I think it’s definitely going to be an adjustment, but you look forward to seeing how he does it.”

Usually, we talk about the challenge quarterbacks face in adjusting to Canadian defences, but if Ford does go to the NFL, he’ll have to learn how to read 11-man coverages on the fly. His first opportunity to do so came at the College Gridiron Showcase in Texas this January, where Ford showed off every necessary physical attribute to be an NFL quarterback, but struggled to get a pass off when placed in a live game situation.

That was expected given the circumstances, but it does drive home the fact that any NFL team hoping to find a Canadian diamond in the rough will need to have patience. Like any prospect with American interest, that throws another wrinkle into his CFL Draft stock. Where should you select Ford if his NFL suitors are committing themselves to a long-term project?

“You definitely weigh that,” Allemang noted. “Whether you use some of your relationships in the NFL and try to get a gauge through them and the players’ agent, and even the players themselves, just what their future might look like down there.”

“Obviously you get to know the players and if they do have an opportunity, you’ll be excited for ’em. But come draft day, you do have to weigh it a little bit. At some point, we’re going to want to draft players that can come in and compete for our team.”

The question of how soon Ford will be able to compete for a CFL job will not be answered this weekend. In fact, very few of the questions about Ford’s pro potential will be answered while throwing one-on-ones in Toronto. But you can be certain that teams will be watching his every move and interviewing Ford with an attention to detail that few of the usually obligatory arms invited to a CFL Combine have ever experienced.

For an event and draft cycle that is so often bemoaned for its lack of meaningful QB talking points, Ford now provides one of the most fascinating storylines in recent memory: a generationally talented athlete dividing scouts and drawing big league attention.

If you haven’t been paying attention yet, now would be a smart time to start.

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.