The football is the most precious resource in all of sport. Its allocation can divide locker rooms and fracture relationships. Receivers clamour to get their fair share. Linemen beg to touch it just once.
Everybody on the field wants their chance to carry the pigskin. Everybody, except for James Peter.
At five-foot-nine and 220 pounds, the 2023 CFL Draft prospect is exactly the type of person that teams would love to hand the rock to. He was once damn good at it too, earning interest from programs across the country as a high school running back recruit with a punishing style that he modelled after NFL star Adrian Peterson.
“I was really big on just trucking guys,” Peter recalled with a laugh during a recent sit down with 3DownNation. “I am actually fast but I was really just a downhill runner. I wasn’t much of a juker but when I hit you, you felt it and a lot of guys wouldn’t be able to tackle me.”
While most dream of the glory that comes with being a workhorse ball carrier, Peter had little interest in continuing along that path. When it came time for him to select his post-secondary destination, he chose his hometown University of Ottawa — not because it was close, but because it was the only school in Canada that was willing to let him play linebacker.
Normally the reverse is true, with recruits turning down offers that might see them lose out on offensive touches. Peter’s different perspective continues to set him apart from his peers.
“I’m the type of guy who likes going to get my own food. I like to go eat myself. I don’t like waiting, I don’t like being handed the ball, it’s just not me,” he smiled.
“I don’t like other people controlling my fate as much and I felt like with offence, a coach kind of controls your fate depending on if you guys run the ball a lot or you guys pass a lot. Defence, it’s like, okay, go make a play.”
Six years later, his decision to stick to defence is still paying off. After an All-Canadian senior season, Peter was named the 16th-best prospect in the 2023 Draft according to the CFL’s winter Scouting Bureau rankings and is expected to impress later this month at the National Combine.
Still, the 23-year-old hardly fits the mould of a Canadian linebacker at the next level. Though he played the weakside in college, many have projected him as a true middle linebacker but that’s an awfully tall task — no pun intended — when you surrender half a foot to the average offensive guard.
Many talented homegrown defenders have suffered in the eyes of scouts due to similar vertical challenges. Some have gone undrafted and others have faced a conversion to fullback in an attempt to find a role.
Peter is far more athletically gifted than many of those names and his steady draft stock shows that most remain bullish on his abilities. Nevertheless, there is a recent precedent for an athletic Gee-Gees linebacker getting flipped to offence, with highly touted strongside prospect Jackson Bennett turning into a quality backup running back with the Redblacks.
Peter looked up to Bennett when he first arrived on campus but he refuses to follow in his footsteps. He’s been done with offence for a long time; those who fail to see his merits as a true linebacker will be proven wrong like all the rest.
“I’ve always been undersized, I’ve always been the underdog. A lot of people overlook me because of my size but at the end of the day, I have the heart and the passion,” he emphasized. “When I hit somebody that’s bigger than me, I know they can feel that heart and passion when I hit.”
“If they do bring up my size, I have the tape. I’ve proven myself.”
Doing so took time, as Peter redshirted his first season at Ottawa and was a minor contributor in each of the next two, chipping in with 14.5 and 13.5 tackles respectively. The fluidity and physicality required on defence came naturally to him, but he was still developing as a player.
The jump forward came as a result of the COVID pandemic and the cancelled 2020 season. The absence of the game made him ask some tough questions and the answers caused him to recommit to training, building a makeshift gym in his basement and going above and beyond to ensure he could get field time in the middle of winter.
“I really sat down and talked to myself. I had to decide whether football was the path and I feel like that COVID year, that’s what it did for a lot of people,” Peter explained.
“I think that’s kind of what separated me from other people. I took that initiative. Not a lot of guys shovel the field at nighttime and in the morning just to run on it, especially in Canada.”
The shortened 2021 campaign was his best ever, tallying 36.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks in just six games. However, it proved to be a tumultuous year for the program as a whole, one which challenged the linebacker to grow more as a leader than as a player.
Shortly after the Gee-Gees’ season-opening loss to the University of Toronto, fifth-year defensive lineman Francis Perron collapsed. The 25-year-old was later pronounced dead, a tragedy which sent the locker room into shock and had a tangible impact on the rest of the team’s season. Just coming into his own as a veteran, Peter felt the burden of comforting his teammates.
“In those moments, you have to be strong. It’s tough, but you have to. Being a captain on my team, I couldn’t show those emotions,” he recalled. “Yes, you can be vulnerable, but you still have to uphold your team because everyone’s relying on you at the same time.”
Sadly, it was not the first time that Ottawa had been dealt a devastating loss during his time at the school. Defensive lineman Koic Layembe suddenly passed away in his sleep in 2017, early in Peter’s freshman season. Watching the team leadership handle that death helped prepare him for what he would need to do once he was thrust into that role.
“It’s just like one of those things where it’s like, ‘How can I move forward?'” he explained. “As sad as it sounds, life doesn’t stop. The world doesn’t stop moving, doesn’t stop revolving. You just pick up whatever pieces you can and keep going forward with it.”
The Gee-Gees finished with a 4-4 record that season, losing to Queen’s in the second round of the OUA playoffs. In 2022, they improved to 7-3 but suffered an identical fate. Along the way, Peter blossomed into the country’s best linebacker, amassing 58 tackles, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles last season.
Despite his unusually small size, he has proven to be a force to be reckoned with in the box, flying downhill with unbridled ferocity. He is explosive and instinctual against the run, flashing an athletic profile that more than compensates for the extra headroom he’ll get on team flights.
While he more than passes the eye test moving in space, Peter’s workload in coverage has been limited within the Gee-Gees’ scheme. He is focused on proving to teams during the pre-draft process that he can be trusted to cover receivers at the professional level, giving him the flexibility to line up at weakside linebacker as well as in the middle.
“I honestly feel like my eyes could be a lot better. I really want to work on my zone drops, my zone reads and stuff like that,” he admitted. “I have the quickness, I have the twitch, I have the reactive speed to do it but the eyes are tough because I didn’t really do it much in university. They had me playing traditional linebacker, just hitting gaps.”
The first step in that process came in January when Peter performed at the College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas. It was his first time playing the four-down game or even stepping foot in the United States, but he punched above his weight class against NCAA competition and did not look out of place despite his comparatively small stature.
Next comes the CFL Combine, where Peter will try to make a case to be the first linebacker selected in this year’s draft. The five days of testing and organized practice will show skeptical talent evaluators exactly what his frame looks like competing against other elite prospects.
He’s willing to do just about anything that the coaches ask to prove his value. Just don’t ask him to line up at running back.
“I feel like I can cause havoc for the offence on all sides as a defender,” Peter grinned. “Sideline to sideline, special teams, tackling, running down the field, punt return, all of it.”