Top CFL prospect Zach Herzog proud to be the best Canadian NCAA player you’ve never heard of

Photo courtesy: Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

Run down the list of NCAA football rosters and you’ll quickly realize that we’re in the golden age of the cross-border collegiate star.

202 different Canadians played at an American institution last season, many taking on starting roles for the type of Power Five schools you regularly see in primetime. The very best from north of the 49th parallel have always made their way south, but it’s reached a new level in recent years, with players like Chase Claypool, Chuba Hubbard, and John Metchie III becoming household names while playing for marquee programs.

Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, Zach Herzog wanted to follow that path. He went down the list of college football programs in the mid-western United States, sending his tape to any coach with an open inbox. The responses to a five-foot-nine defensive back from Canada were limited, but in the end, there was one school that made him feel wanted.

“A lot of people always say, ‘Where’s Hillsdale College?’ and you never really have a good answer because it’s in the middle of nowhere,” Herzog chuckled. “But it’s a special place and I’m glad I went there.”

Located in Hillsdale, Michigan — population: 8,305 — the Hillsdale College Chargers ply their trade in the NCAA Division II Great Midwest Athletic Conference. They boast a few NFL alums, most notably the late offensive line guru Howard Mudd, but you’ll never see Kirk Herbstreit calling their games on College GameDay.

Like hundreds of programs across North America, the athletes at Hillsdale College grind in anonymity and it is in that absence of attention that Zach Herzog has become the best Canadian NCAA player that you’ve never heard of.

It’s a label that the defensive back accepted with a wry smile and self-assured confidence, but as he enters the 2022 CFL Draft, it comes with a level of frustration as well. His whole life playing collegiately in the United States was supposed to be the end goal. That’s where the programs were best and the competition toughest. Now, suddenly, that narrative has changed.

In fact, despite being the 19th ranked prospect on the CFL’s Winter Scouting Bureau list, Herzog still had to earn his way to the National Combine with an appearance at the Ontario Regional — a virtually unprecedented ask.

“I’m starting to get the questions, ‘Well, can he hang with the guys in Canada? Can he adjust to the game?'” Herzog said, highlighting the challenges of being a small-school NCAA prospect in a draft-class full of U Sports players that CFL decision-makers have been familiar with for years.

“I just use that as motivation. I have a chip on my shoulder, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t want to be complacent. If I’m getting hyped up, maybe I’ll get comfortable with where I’m at, but if people are always questioning and challenging my abilities, I think that I’ll continue to exceed their expectations.”

That’s all that Herzog has done his whole career. Since staking his claim to the starting role as a sophomore, the tenacious strong safety has been everywhere on the field for the  Chargers. He’s racked up an incredible 244 total tackles in a 27-game span, becoming just the fourth player in the 131-year history of Hillsdale College football to be named first-team All-Conference in three consecutive seasons.

Photo courtesy: Isabella Sheehan/Hillsdale College Athletics

Herzog has come by all that success honestly. He’s quick to credit former CFL defensive backs Michael Carter and Chris Rwabukamba for transforming him from a chubby, undersized linebacker in high school into a versatile safety, but the underlying passion required to make that leap was entirely his own. You can see it instantly on film, where his natural instincts are only matched by his clear dedication to tape study.

“If you’re not prepared, no matter how talented you are or instinctual you are, you might not necessarily get there. You might be a step too slow or step too fast,” Herzog said. “I think it’s super important to study your opponent, study tendencies, formations, see what they do there, but I think the biggest thing is being critical of your own film, watching yourself and seeing where you can improve.”

That well-formed habit will be key for him to re-adjust to the Canadian game he grew up playing. The Combine circuit proved he has more than adequate athleticism to make the jump to the pros — with a 4.72 forty-yard dash, 36.5-inch vertical and 7.03 three-cone — but returning to the waggle was a rude awakening at times, as Herzog found himself edged out by Laval receiver Vincent Forbes-Mombleau on two one-on-one reps he wished he could have back.

“If it was up to me, I would’ve told him let’s line it up 10 more times till I get the job done at the end of the day,” he laughed.

Covering man-to-man is unlikely to consume much of Herzog’s time at the CFL level anyway, as the 192-pound defender will vie for a role at free safety, where his range and intelligence will help him succeed. Give him half a chance and he’ll be sure to tell you he can play other spots as well, with enough physicality and experience playing in the box to get you out of a game at strong-side linebacker.

Despite that versatility, size and level of competition concerns should see Herzog selected in the middle rounds of the May 3 draft. In the end, that’s just fine by him. The best Canadian NCAA player you’ve never heard of plans to make a CFL impact you can’t ignore, no matter where he’s drafted.

“Everywhere I go, I rise up to the competition,” he grinned. “I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”

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.