Despite ‘unlikely road,’ Jeremie Dominique believes he’s the best defensive player in the 2022 CFL Draft

Photo courtesy: Scott Abbott

Jeremie Dominique has never lacked for confidence.

It’s a trait possessed by so many athletes, yet still oozes from the Montreal-born defensive back with a special kind of ease. When it comes to walking the tight rope between self-belief and arrogance, he’s become something of an expert acrobat, centred by an absolute refusal to be anything other than himself.

It’s always been that way. He still sports the same bleach blonde hairstyle — sometimes grown out into an impressive afro — that he once begged his mother for at seven years old. Dominique wanted to be one of a kind and once he committed to his on-again, off-again relationship with football at the age of 14, the path to set himself apart was simple. With a swagger stolen from watching Tyrann Mathieu and Richard Sherman, he knew he was destined for NCAA Division I football and after that, a professional career.

“I used to tell people I was the best corner in Canada before I was even close to that — I mean, I just started playing the position — but I would say it because I knew it was going to happen eventually,” Dominique says with a knowing smile.

“It got to that point and I was a starting corner on Team Canada, but it was always pretty clear in my head [that I had a future in the sport.]”

He now sits on the precipice of achieving that dream, eligible for selection in both the  upcoming NFL and CFL Drafts, but the road that’s taken Dominique to this point is far from the one he originally imagined. Five years and three different universities later, many players might have had their confidence shaken and given up. He hasn’t.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t take a kid under my wing and tell him to do it exactly like I did,” Dominique admits. “It’s not everybody that can do that and it’s not everybody that can find success within that. It’s a very unlikely road.”

Ranked as the 17th best recruit in the nation by CanadaFootballChat in 2017, Dominique had done all he needed to during his time at Cégep du Vieux Montréal to back up his early bravado. Several major NCAA schools had offered him and the University of Tennessee was the frontrunner for his services, when late in the process an offer came in from the University of Hawaii. It seemed a dream destination, with a coaching staff that had a clear plan for him, and he committed without so much as an official visit.

As an early enrollee, Dominique found himself in a whole new world from the frigid Montreal winter he had grown accustomed. Seeing coaches wearing flip flops and open shirts took some getting used to, but he adjusted quickly on the field. Though he played sparingly, Dominique never redshirted, dressing for seven games in his true freshman season. With a path to being a true sophomore starter, it seemed his childhood plan was playing out exactly how he had envisioned.

“I was a young guy who had enjoyed success early on there and I wanted everything fast,” Dominique recalls. “In my opinion, I was gonna declare after my junior year and already be gone to the NFL.”

Jeremie Dominique (left) attempts a tackle while at Hawaii. Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Marco Garcia

It was then that disaster struck. Having never been injured in his life, Dominique hurt his ankle in the lead up to the 2018 season and it refused to heal. The medical diagnosis was that he had suffered severe ligament damage and needed season-ending surgery, but the coaching staff pushed back on the timing of the procedure. They felt it was playable and that he still had something to offer the team on the field.

For weeks, Dominique was in and out of the lineup, playing in six games on an ankle that required pre-game treatment, a brace, and a full tape job to run on, but remained so fragile he could only play a handful of snaps at a time. Eventually, it got to the point that any disagreement between the safety and his coaches ceased. Dominique was shut down for the remainder of the season and booked for off-season surgery. It was simply devastating.

“Being a young guy that’s always been the best player on my team and then getting over there and being one of the most promising freshmen, you always really feel a part of the team,” he explains.

“But when you get a big injury, you don’t, because you’re not around the guys anymore. You spend a lot of time by yourself, just nursing some stuff and you question yourself. You wonder if you’re ever gonna be back to the same guy.”

While the injury took a toll mentally, the situation was only going to get worse. Having gone under the knife following the last game of the season, Dominique returned to the hospital for a routine post-op checkup and was rushed into an emergency second surgery. An infection had taken hold underneath his cast and suddenly his career was in real peril.

“I remember I kept asking them: ‘Am I gonna lose my foot?'” Dominique recalls. “What was making me freak out is that they didn’t want to tell me no, because medically, technically, they couldn’t say no. It was a pretty serious thing. They said: ‘Look, we’re gonna do our best.'”

The procedure worked and Dominique’s foot was saved, but his junior year — once his desired launchpad to the NFL — was a write-off. At the same time, his family in Montreal was undergoing their own personal struggles.

Having been the man of his household since he was a teenager, Dominique felt the six-hour time difference acutely. Rather than be injured and isolated on O’ahu, he transferred to the University of North Dakota for what would be a year of intensive rehab, ensuring he was just an hour drive away from the Winnipeg airport and a cheap flight home.

The lost season wouldn’t go to waste, as Dominique took a more intensive approach to film study and would eventually graduate from North Dakota after taking seven classes his final semester. Once spring camp rolled around, his ankle felt stronger than it ever had and he was making plays once again, so much so that he got a familiar itch.

With his family situation stabilized and his health improved, Dominique felt he could play at a higher level than UND’s NCAA FCS competition. Having never played a snap at the school, he entered the transfer portal in search of a major FBS opportunity.

“At that moment, I just wanted to go play,” Dominique says. “The competitor in me wanted to go play one more year on the biggest stage, put on a show and leave after that, because I was just in that kind of mind-frame.”

He had interest from multiple major schools, most notably San Diego State, but the decision proved to be an ill-timed gamble. Two weeks after his announcement, COVID-19 put the world into lockdown.

The teams recruiting him canceled their seasons and there was no point in him enrolling in September while stuck at home in Montreal. He figured the opportunities would be there in the spring, until several conferences reversed course late after outcry from athletes, leaving Dominique stranded without a landing spot.

Now limited to just teams that would play in the the spring, he was barred from making a lateral move in the FCS and instead had to turn to the NCAA Division II ranks. Dominique settled on the University of Charleston in West Virginia and has never looked back, racking up 40 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and three pass deflections on his way to second-team all-conference honours at safety last season.

Photo courtesy: Scott Abbott

In some ways, the fall from the FBS to Division II has been humbling. Dominique knows how it will play with scouts and the questions it inevitably raises in personnel departments, though he notes that both of his transfers were amicable and for valid reasons. Nevertheless, he also feels a sense of vindication after finally having the chance to showcase his ability on the field and seeing professional teams take notice.

“It definitely feels great that this whole time fighting for it, you were right,” Dominique smiles. “You prove yourself right, because even though it got dark, I always had that thought that I was gonna be where I’m at right now.”

Invited to the College Gridiron Showcase this January, Dominique has had conversations with a couple of NFL teams and believes he still has the ability to live out his dream of playing on the game’s biggest stage.

That doesn’t mean he’s turning up his nose at the CFL however, and he’s told all nine teams with a chance to draft him on May 3rd that he’ll be ready and willing should an opportunity as an NFL undrafted free agent not arise.

“I’m not the type of guy to look down on any opportunity where you get to play football for money. The best way I could say it is for me, hitting people and all that stuff is not something I like to do. It’s something I need to do,” Dominique stresses.

“I know what the goal is and I know what I can do, but no matter how the journey plays out, I’ve shown in my past that I can maneuver through stuff that wasn’t in the initial script.”

With a chuckle he notes that it won’t be his first job in the CFL, as he spent two years working the popcorn stand at Alouettes games as a teenager. That was back in the days when he was a cocky kid with an NCAA end goal and his confidence hasn’t much changed.

With just a single full season as a starter at the Division II level under his belt, Dominique’s unique journey makes him one of the 2022 CFL Draft’s biggest wild cards and a hamstring injury at his pro day means teams won’t have testing numbers until two weeks before the draft. Under the radar of most outside league circles, no one is quite sure how highly he will be selected, but Dominique has a strong opinion of his own.

He believes he is the best defensive player in the country and should be in the first round conversation alongside the likes of Tyrell Richards, Deionte Knight and Enock Makonzo. Forced to grow up fast both in football and life, Dominique thinks he can be a locker room leader and a chess piece on defence, capable of playing every spot in the secondary.

“It’s really simple, just put on the film. I don’t like to talk about it too much, but just put on the film and you’ll understand pretty quickly why I set myself apart from the rest,” he says seriously. “There’s a lot of work behind it, there’s a lot of film study, so I don’t say it lightly. I say this because of the substance.”

Whether the six-foot-one, 196-pound free safety really checks every box will be up to CFL scouts to decide, but in a draft class shallow for talent, you won’t find a player with a more impressive pedigree.

That will be something teams covet, Dominique can be confident of that.

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.