Breaking down the Canadian performances at the 2023 College Gridiron Showcase

Photo courtesy: Fred Weinrauch

The 2023 CFL Draft remains four months away but a cohort of talented Canadian prospects took the first major step toward their pro football dream this past week in Fort Worth, Texas.

Established in 2015, the College Gridiron Showcase has become a critical early stop on the post-season all-star circuit, offering more than 300 NFL hopefuls a chance to compete in front of scouts every January. The event now boasts 81 alumni in the big league down south, including the likes of J.D. McKissic, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Nate Hobbs, Rodney Thomas, Jakeem Grant, and Matt Breida.

Smaller all-star showcases of this nature are a vital scouting ground for CFL teams and players like Reggie Begelton and Dane Evans are among the finds to emerge from the event. From almost the very beginning, the game has also served as a proving ground for Canadian talent, giving them a chance to compete directly with players wearing instantly recognizable helmets — Alabama, Auburn, Pitt, Oregon and more.

The list of former first-round CFL Draft picks to attend is long, including two last year in receiver Jalen Philpot and quarterback Tre Ford. Three of the other Canadians present at the 2022 event have signed an NFL contract over the previous 12 months: Wake Forest defensive lineman Luiji Vilain in Minnesota following the draft, NC State defensive lineman Daniel Joseph in Buffalo before training camp, and Waterloo defensive back Tyrell Ford in Green Bay earlier this week.

After being on hand to witness that talented group a year ago, I travelled down to the Lone Star state again this week to watch the next class of future Canadian stars. Joining me were scouts from all 32 NFL teams, the USFL, XFL, and even the WWE, along with top decision-makers for every CFL club. That included at least two general managers who stopped by en route to the league’s annual meeting in Kananaskis, Saskatchewan’s Jeremy O’Day and Edmonton’s Chris Jones.

In total, 11 Canadians took to the field in Fort Worth and while this group didn’t quite have the same star power as the 2022 contingent, the prevailing sentiment was that they had a more consistent overall showing and fewer early growing pains.

The action began in earnest on Saturday with the Small School Showcase, a precursor event for players hailing from more obscure programs at the lower levels of NCAA and NAIA competition which allows them to earn an invite to the main event following a scrimmage on Sunday. The lone Canadian invited, defensive end Arnold Mbembe, did just that with a strong showing and cemented his status as one of the draft’s most intriguing prospects.

A project in the truest sense of the word, Mbembe measures in at six-foot-five and possesses whopping 35 1/4-inch arms — length so unique that his list of CFL comparables would include physical freaks like Willie Jefferson. However, he currently weighs in at an absurdly skinny 220 pounds and has taken a circuitous route to pro football. Originally committed to UMass, delays with his SATs and a subsequent coaching change led him to begin his college career at Laval, before transferring to Carleton. He moved again in 2022, finally landing a desired NCAA opportunity with the Division II Lincoln Oaklanders, which faced five FCS opponents this season.

The recently launched program is a horror show to track players at, with no functional online roster or stats page, leading the Quebecer to drop off the radar somewhat as a senior. A solid showing in the all-star setting likely helped him more than any other Canadian, even if it was far from perfect. Mbembe is stiff and his strength at the point of attack is a real concern right now, but he gets off the line quickly and continued to flash pressure against the top group because of his unique physical traits. He needs to add 30 pounds to his frame but could be a diamond in the rough once a CFL defensive line coach teaches him some more refined pass rush techniques.

When it came to the main showcase, the highest degree of hype surrounded Penn State safety Jonathan Sutherland — though scouts ended up seeing very little of him throughout the week. A shipping error by the Nittany Lions’ equipment staff led to the Ottawa native’s gear arriving a day late, preventing him from practicing on Monday, and he departed before the final scrimmage on Wednesday. The reason for his early exit wasn’t made clear and the handful of scouts he interviewed with weren’t given a heads-up.

What we did see from Sutherland on Tuesday mostly lived up to the billing and his movement skills were as good as anyone on the field. A jack of all trades who saw reps from a variety of alignments in college but never really cemented himself as an every-down player, he was explosive coming out of breaks and could cover with the best of them. He also showed some eye-popping physicality at an event that is usually light on contact, at one point lowering his shoulder to decleat a receiver coming across the middle in his lone skelly session.

A four-time team captain and special teams ace, Sutherland is discussed in an almost rarified air by those around the Penn State program. Relatively soft-spoken off the field, he leads by example and could get an NFL opportunity by virtue of his prowess in the game’s third phase. He’ll do much more than just cover kicks if he comes to the CFL and I was disappointed not to see him fly around during the last session.

Other than Sutherland, the Canadian prospect who seemed to gain the most attention from NFL scouts was Guelph cornerback Siriman Harrison Bagayogo. The two-time All-Canadian more than passed the eye test due to his six-foot-one, 195-pound frame and had several interviews with teams — often a rarity for U Sports players.

Bagayogo was particularly well suited to an event like CGS due to his wealth of experience playing press-man coverage for the Gryphons. He possesses fluid hips in transition and adapted very quickly to the pace of play in the one-on-one drills. I thought he had an excellent final day, rarely leaving his receiver’s hip pocket and preventing a touchdown by forcing his man out of bounds on a corner route from the slot.

Also working in the Bois-des-Fillion native’s favour is how raw he remains despite his considerable success. He didn’t pick up the sport until he was 18 and has just three seasons as a starter at any level under his belt. Unfortunately, his showing in Texas will do little to answer CFL scouts’ biggest question about him, which is how his skillset will translate to their much more zone-dominant defensive systems.

Fellow defensive back Patrick Burke Jr. of Wilfrid Laurier dealt with the opposite side of that dilemma throughout the week. The second-team OUA all-star at halfback is not nearly as smooth an athlete as Bagayogo and lacks his natural instincts in man coverage. That led to some struggles when asked to line up at corner, as he floundered in a few one-on-ones and got burnt for a touchdown on the last play of the scrimmage.

At six-foot and 200 pounds, what he did bring to the table was a noticeable zest for the physical side of the game. When asked to break downhill to engage a blocker or make a tackle, Burke performed with fearless energy. Not every rep was a technical masterpiece, but refusing to shy away from contact when facing top competition will tick a major intangible box.

Ottawa linebacker James Peter faced his own challenges during his first-ever visit to the United States, facing a much more compact box than he is accustomed to. Sorting through that increased traffic was not an easy task for a player who measures in at just five-foot-nine-and-a-half and there were times, especially early in the event, when he got lost in the mess. To the All-Canadian’s credit, that never seemed to faze him and he continued to stick his nose into the point of attack without hesitation.

Despite his unusually small stature for the position, Peter is more than thick enough at 220 pounds to hold up to the pounding required at the CFL level. He also has 33 1/2-inch arms, which negates some of the concerns usually associated with smaller players when it comes to disengaging blockers. However, the former high school running back’s greatest strengths are his movement skills and explosiveness coming downhill, something that shone through despite his being less well-suited to the American game.

Rounding out the defensive contingent was UBC defensive end Lake Korte-Moore, a player that has already received some very public first-round CFL Draft buzz. Checking in at six-foot-four and 258 pounds, the Ottawa native has almost ideal CFL size but lacks the length that would attract NFL attention at an all-star event. He isn’t an elite bender either and is still building his pass rush arsenal, though I came away impressed with his willingness to try a few different moves in the practices.

What Korte-Moore does have in spades is brute strength and raw power, which will allow him to operate from any alignment in the CFL. He showed the ability to knock back Division I offensive linemen with a bull rush and absolutely rag-dolled Temple’s Isaac Moore with a hump move in the scrimmage — no easy feat given that the 308-pound Swede was a four-year starter in college. The Thunderbird standout may not burn you off the edge, but it is difficult to imagine him not having success at the next level.

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Western’s Phillip Grohovac and Sherbrooke’s Anthony Vandal were thrown into the deep end when came to blocking elite American defensive linemen without the one-yard neutral zone. That change is often a deceptive one for Canadian players coming to the event and both players remarked after the first day just how much it actually changed their technique in both the run and pass game.

Grohovac seemed to have a slightly easier time with the adjustment and showed well while remaining at his guard spot. At a stout six-foot-four and 315 pounds, he anchored well in the one-on-one drills and had enough foot quickness to stay in front of most defenders, though he succumbed to a few quick moves. He looked functional as a puller in the run game and effectively climbed to a linebacker on a few occasions, though the two-time All-Canadian didn’t generate as much pop on the first level as I’m sure he might have liked while adjusting to the reality of a defender being right on top of him.

Vandal had a more difficult time, particularly when it came to the one-on-one component of the week, but he also shouldered a more difficult task. A tackle for the Vert et Or, he likely needs to move to guard at the next level but took several reps at both positions throughout the event. The footspeed wasn’t quite there when handling rushers off the edge and his technique inside was still developing, leading to some losses.

However, Vandal looked much more comfortable in the 11-on-11 sessions where he could utilize the leverage of the play to his advantage and he approached the week with exactly the right mindset: a chance to test himself and see where he needs to improve. Told by coaches that he needed to get “meaner” at the next level, the mild-mannered Vandal showed some fire on Day 2 by having a brief shoving match with an opponent, eliciting some smiles from the CFL scouts in attendance.

Also representing the RSEQ was Concordia receiver Jeremy Murphy, who carries himself bigger than his six-foot, 189-pound frame. He had the best play by a Canadian in the scrimmage on Wednesday, going down to make a nice catch for a sizeable gain late in the session. It was a nice cherry on top of a mixed week for the former U Sports rookie of the year, one which highlighted both his strengths and weaknesses.

Though he’s not a bad athlete by any stretch of the imagination, Murphy is a little stiff in his routes and lacks a second gear coming out of breaks. He struggled to separate in many of his one-on-ones as a result, but that didn’t prevent him from making plays. The Montrealer has baseball mitts for hands and hauled in a few impressive contested catches. Though he lined up on the line a ton for the Stingers, I picture him as more of a possession slot at the next level who can take advantage of the waggle.

Coming off a season in which he missed significant time with a misdiagnosed high ankle sprain, Guelph’s Clark Barnes was also in attendance and proved last year’s dismal production is not an indication of his ability. At six-foot and 192 pounds, he looks almost gangly due to his 33-inch arms, which he uses to great effect when extending for passes.

The Brampton native got off of man coverage effectively and created separation with a combination of good speed and quickness. Though he proved to be nowhere near as sudden in his cuts as Jalen Philpot was at the event last year, Barnes is faster and didn’t seem to ever get outmuscled in press. I was particularly impressed by his downfield blocking during the scrimmage and noted that he seemed to be actively trying to jump in for more reps than most other players, sometimes getting turned away.

Joining the 10 Canadian position players for Sunday only was Toronto punter Dante Mastrogiuseppe, who took part in the two-hour specialist workout. Currently a free agent after going unselected in last year’s draft, the York transfer didn’t look out of place and got some jabs from those in attendance that his passport gave him an unfair advantage when it came to directional kicks. He pinned all of his “pooch punts” within the ten-yard line and averaged 3.8 seconds of hang time throughout the afternoon, peaking with a 48-yard punt from the left hash that hung for 4.5 seconds. He also went 6-of-9 on field goals, banging three misses off the left upright from 42, 50 and 55 yards.

Performance at events like CGS should always be taken with a grain of salt. Players are asked to adapt to new systems, new coaches, and, in the case of the U Sports prospects, an entirely new rule book in the span of just a few days. Personally, I subscribe to the same evaluation philosophy as the late offensive line guru Howard Mudd when it comes to all-star games: a strong showing should improve a player’s stock only slightly, while a bad week should never be allowed to drop them down your board.

In the case of this class of Canadian draft hopefuls, none could be considered in the latter category. Each will come away from the experience with plenty to work on but all proved that they belonged on the same field with NCAA standouts and NFL prospects.

As the CFL Combine gets set to take on a more CGS-type format in 2023, that experience will be an invaluable first step toward hearing their names called in May.

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.