20 players to watch at the 2023 CFL Invitational Combine

Photo courtesy: Huskie Athletics/GetMyPhoto.ca

On Friday, more than 70 football players will make their way to the Feridun Hamdullahpur Field House at the University of Waterloo for a chance to earn a ticket to compete against the best.

The 2023 CFL Invitational Combine is a new invention, centralizing what had previously been divided into three separate regional events. Under-the-radar prospects who failed to receive an invite to the five-day-long National Combine in Edmonton later this month will perform for scouts and attempt to wow them with previously unacknowledged athleticism.

At the end of the day, the top performers will be upgraded to the big show at Commonwealth. The rest will head home and hope they’ve left enough of an impression to hear their names called on draft day.

In recent years, the Regional Combine circuit has revealed some of the draft’s best players. 2022 second-overall pick Zack Pelehos worked his way up from the Eastern Regional a year ago. In 2020, first-overall selection Jordan Williams made his debut at the Ontario Regional, along with the likes of Kian Schaffer-Baker.

Each year, 3DownNation has previewed some of the top players capturing our interest ahead of each Regional Combine. 2023 will be no different, though the expanded number of participants demands a much longer list.

Here are 20 players you should be aware of heading into the inaugural Invitational Combine, presented in alphabetical order by surname.

Tolu Ahmed, DB, University of Toronto (Ottawa, Ont.)

Unheralded as many Varsity Blues seem to be, OUA receivers will tell you that Ahmed was quietly one of the toughest defensive backs they’ve lined up against. He possesses unique size and length as a six-foot-three, 190-pound cornerback and uses it to great effect with 12 career pass breakups to his name. Should the 22-year-old back up his on-the-field flashes with solid athletic numbers, expect him to be a riser.

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/SFU Athletics

Ethan Beselt, REC, Simon Fraser University (West Kelowna, B.C.)

The Red Leafs had very little going for them last season but Beselt was the lone bright spot, hauling in 36 catches for 647 yards and eight touchdowns in seven games. Likely to check in under his listed five-foot-nine and 185 pounds, he flashed speed as a deep threat and showed up in the biggest moments, breaking open deep or making tough contested catches against much larger opponents. Consistently productive at the NCAA Division II level throughout his career, he won’t test quite as well as his former teammate Gavin Cobb did last year but could capture attention during one-on-ones.

Jacob Biggs, DB, University of Calgary (Calgary, Alta.)

If not for the fact that he measures in at an undersized five-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Biggs’ college production would almost certainly have earned him a spot at the National Combine. In 32 games playing mostly strongside linebacker or halfback, he produced 98 tackles, 25 pass breakups and three interceptions while demonstrating smooth movement skills and elite instincts. If last year’s East-West Bowl is any indication, expect him to be one of the top testers in multiple categories.

Donovan Burgmaier, DE, University of Alberta (Sherwood Park, Alta.)

Burgmaier made this list last year ahead of the Western Regional Combine, only to have his draft year involuntarily deferred after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Despite that black mark and uninspiring college production, teams will be chomping at the bit to see how the 26-year-old moves following the year off. At six-foot-five and 250 pounds, he was routinely lined up off ball or dropped into coverage by the Golden Bears, showing frightening versatility for a big man.

Joachim Christian, DB, Carleton University (Montreal, Que.)

A multi-year starter at SAM, Christian checks a major box because of the thickness of his six-foot-one, 200-pound frame. The Ravens’ top defender a year ago with 36.5 tackles packs a punch coming downhill and could offer some positional versatility as either a defensive back or linebacker, though his true value will lie on special teams.

Photo courtesy: Robin Kasem/Queen’s Gaels

Eric Colonna, DB, Queen’s University (Mississauga, Ont.)

A gym rat with a purpose, Colonna shows all the quick processing ability and explosion out of breaks that you want in a safety, while having enough juice to return a few punts. He appears to be smaller than his listed five-foot-10 and 195 pounds but is one of the best pure tacklers in the draft, with impeccable form and a zest for the finish.

Javonni Cunningham, REC, Cornell University (Suwanee, Ga.)

The Vancouver-born son of former CFL all-star Jimmy “The Jet” Cunnigham has very little in the way of college production but could be a Combine darling if his genetics mean anything. The five-foot-11, 185-pound return man is fast if nothing else and a blazing forty-yard dash could be all it takes to receive an invite to the National.

Adam Guillemette, LS, Holy Cross University (Cambridge, Ont.)

There will always be a need for long snappers in the CFL Draft and the three top candidates will be in Waterloo. Though he possesses less positional versatility than some others, the six-foot-one, 220-pound Guillemette is the only one with an NCAA pedigree and will have much to prove when performing for many of those in attendance for the first time.

Malcolm Hinds, DT, Western University (Brampton, Ont.)

An OUA all-star at defensive tackle in 2021, Hinds saw his production drop from 32 tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks a year ago to just 25 tackles and a single sack as a senior. There is some juice to the six-foot-two, 290-pound lineman’s game but he is slated to turn 26 in July and will need to post strong numbers to prove he still has something to give.

Sebastian Howard, TE, Saint Mary’s University (Parksville, B.C.)

If you’re looking for statistical production, you won’t find any during Howard’s long collegiate journey from UBC to the CJFL’s Langley Rams and finally SMU. What you will find is a receiver who stands at six-foot-six and 230 pounds, the type of size that so often makes teams overlook other deficiencies. If he posts respectable athletic numbers with that frame, getting drafted isn’t an absurd proposition.

Photo courtesy: SMU Huskies

Aidan John, DE, Saint Mary’s University (Halifax, N.S.)

Players with John’s athletic profile should be far more dominant in the AUS than he was, finishing with 29 tackles and four for loss last season. Yet beneath the six-foot-four, 255-pound rusher’s inconsistent technique and high pad level is a good motor and length you can’t teach — traits that often come to the forefront at events like this.

Troy Kowal, OL, Minot State University (High River, Alta.)

Teams will be scrounging for offensive line talent in a weak class for it, making Kowal’s résumé tough to ignore. The six-foot-six, 295-pound blocker has prototypical size and 29 games of experience playing tackle at the NCAA Division II level. Should he prove himself equal to the task against U Sports player in the one-on-ones, he could become just the seventh offensive lineman with a ticket to Edmonton.

Maxym Lavallée, DB, Université Laval (Gatineau, Que.)

Players with Lavallée’s physical profile — five-foot-eight and 185 pounds — are unfortunately crossed off of many teams’ draft boards automatically, but the 2022 RSEQ all-star has many of the compensating factors you look for. A twitched-up safety with elite speed and range, he moves as well as any player in the draft and throws his body around fearlessly, racking up a team-leading 32.5 tackles last year.

Ryan Leder, DE, McMaster University (Hamilton, Ont.)

Leder has struggled with a lack of productivity as a pass rusher, recording just a single sack this season and never coming close to replicating the numbers from his promising four-sack 2019 season. Still, the six-foot-one, 250-pound defensive end flashes just enough explosiveness, strength and bend to keep you coming back for more and could surprise in the one-on-ones.

Photo courtesy: Lincoln Oaklanders

Arnold Mbembe, DE, Lincoln University-California (Quebec, Que.)

Make no mistake about it, Mbembe is the most fascinating prospect in this year’s draft and not just because his unconventional journey saw him go from a UMass commit to Laval to Carleton to an NCAA Division II program. Standing six-foot-five, he has absurd 35 1/4-inch arms but remains raw and stiff as a pass rusher. His tools make him worth developing but his biggest test of the day will be the weigh-ins, where he’ll need to prove he’s making progress towards a playing weight of 260 pounds after dropping down to a rail-thin 220 last year.

Caleb Morin, REC, University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, Sask.)

A former walk-on, Morin’s first four seasons with the Huskies hardly merited a footnote before he broke out with 48 receptions for 736 yards in his final collegiate campaign. The six-foot-three, 190-pound target has a frame you can build on and was deceptively difficult to bring down with the ball in his hands. While he won’t be a testing darling, don’t expect him to lose positioning in the one-on-ones.

Michael O’Shea, REC, Okanagan Sun (Winnipeg, Man.)

Yes, you read that right. The son of CFL Hall of Famer and Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea is eligible for selection this year and he’s no slouch. Since leaving his father’s alma mater of Guelph, the six-foot-one, 170-pound receiver has amassed some elite numbers in the CJFL, earning All-Canadian honours in two different spots in 2022 after hauling in 28 passes for 483 yards and eight touchdowns while returning 58 kicks for 1,011 yards and three majors. On top of all that, his blocking might be his best attribute — just as dad would expect.

Alec Poirier, LB, Université Laval (Blainville, Quebec)

The 2021 RSEQ Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time second-team All-Canadian, Poirier has the highest profile of any prospect attending the Invitational Combine. At a listed six-foot-three and 250 pounds, his size is drool-worthy and his hits pack a punch but he’ll need to prove he can move better in space than he did while beating up on some of the cupcake teams in Quebec.

Amilcar Polk, RB, University of Ottawa (Hamilton, Ont.)

Buried behind J.P. Cimankinda on the depth chart, Polk still managed to record a respectable 434 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns out of the Gee-Gees’ backfield last season, but that won’t be what gets him paid. The five-foot-10, 200-pound ball carrier is credited with 22 tackles in 24 career games and will almost certainly gain traction as a special teams demon.

Taylor Stalkie, FB, Wilfrid Laurier University (Camden East, Ont.)

At six-foot and 235 pounds, Stalkie has the size to contribute at fullback even though his offensive reps have been limited. However, teams won’t overlook the fact that he posted 10.5 special teams tackles in nine games last year, making him a potentially valuable target late in the draft.

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.