Encountered out of context, you’d have no idea that Phillip Grohovac is one of the nastiest road graders in Canadian university football.
With his goofy smile, patchy beard and floppy mop of hair, the 22-year-old is disarming. He looks like a friendly teddy bear, far less imposing than his six-foot-four, 315-pound frame.
And yet, the Western Mustangs’ All-Canadian right guard has punished opponents for the past three seasons as part of Canada’s most dominant collegiate rushing attack. He has a well-earned reputation for displacing big men at the point of attack and demolishing smaller ones if they are unlucky enough to encounter him out in space.
“I’m pretty good at moving some bodies,” Grohovac grinned during an interview with 3DownNation earlier this offseason. “I think once I get my hands on you, I can pretty much just control you. I’ll do my best to keep you under wraps for the most part and not let you make any plays.”
None of that would be readily apparent in a casual conversation but if you probe deep enough behind his rosy cheeks and crooked grin, you’ll find evidence of the edge that CFL teams will covet this offseason. A player unphased by the quality of any opponent’s resume, but who enters games with a quiet chip on his shoulder nonetheless.
“There are guys you circle but maybe not because they’re studs or something. Maybe because they talked some trash in the past and you want to make up for that. Or maybe they got you in the past but you want to make up for it,” he chuckled. “Mostly from when I was younger. People would come after me a bit when I was the youngest on the line.”
Few have been brave enough to target the Victoria, B.C. native in recent years, as Grohovac has risen to become the latest top prospect from Western’s offensive line factory. The 20th player on the CFL’s winter Scouting Bureau rankings enters next week’s National Combine as the highest-rated offensive lineman in attendance, with a chance to secure his status as the top hog in the 2023 CFL Draft.
It was exactly the path that Grohovac was hoping to follow when he opted to leave his home province as a high school recruit. Still proud to proclaim that he has been named the Most Improved Player on every team he’s ever played for, he wanted to commit to a program with a history of developing great linemen. The choice came down to the University of Alberta or the purple juggernauts in London, Ont., who sold him with the official visit.
“The culture was so good it was something I couldn’t say no to,” Grohovac recalled, struggling to find the words to describe what exactly made the Mustangs so special.
“I don’t think they tell you something and it changes who you are. It’s just that you become part of that tradition. What you do every day is who you are and everything we do is pretty much together. It just keeps going and then you pass it on to the next guys.”
Coming off a torn ACL in his senior year of high school, adjusting to the U Sports level of competition was not without challenges for the B.C.-born blocker. He redshirted his first season and dressed for just four games in 2019, slowly working towards the improvement on which he prides himself.
After the cancellation of the 2020 season delayed the next stage of his development, Grohovac emerged as a full-time starter for the first time in 2021 and earned second-team All-Canadian status. He credits much of that success to the competition he was able to train against that summer when many of his teammates weren’t even in pads yet, taking part in a small group that prepared for the season with daily one-on-one sessions.
Chief among his training partners was defensive lineman Deionte Knight, who took home the J.P. Metras Trophy that season as the nation’s top down lineman.
“We just did one-on-ones all the time with me, [Zack] Fry, Deionte, Nic Theriault, everyone who was in town, and by the time the season started, we were already firing on all cylinders,” Grohovac said. “We didn’t really have any time to think about what each other was going to be. We didn’t know. We both had never been All-Canadians.”
After a strong showing as the lone U Sports representative at the East-West Shrine Bowl, Knight attended NFL rookie mini-camps with the Washington Commanders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was drafted by the Toronto Argonauts with the tenth overall pick in the 2022 CFL Draft.
Despite the defender’s long list of accolades, it was those on the other side of the line of scrimmage who had the biggest impact on Western’s success. The offensive line, led by Grohovac, Saskatchewan Roughrider draft pick Zack Fry, and centre Elliott Beamer, paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged over 260 yards per game on its way to victory in the 2021 Vanier Cup.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Grohovac said of the national championship. “Especially after the year off, you kind of take everything for granted before. Being able to come back that first year and put together the season we did with the special team we had, it was really meaningful.”
Western was no less dominant on the ground in 2022, upping their average to 292 yards rushing per game as they posted a perfect regular season record. However, the number-one-ranked team in the country was upset in the national semi-final by Laval, falling one game short of a chance to repeat as champions in their home stadium.
“In my heart, I’ll remember plays from the losses more,” Grohovac admitted. “But I think that overall when I look back at my Western career, I’ll think of it as a winning career. I don’t think as much about the losses but when you do think about those losses, it hits a little harder.”
While he won’t leave Western on top, there is no debating his role in their offensive success. Running back Keon Edwards, himself a 2023 CFL Draft prospect, has amassed 2,653 yards and 27 touchdowns over the past two seasons, taking home OUA MVP honours in 2022. He hasn’t been alone though. Trey Humes had 739 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2021, while Edouard Wanadi has chipped in with 1,421 yards and 14 touchdowns in the past two years. From top to bottom, every back in the committee has feasted thanks to the big men up front.
“You understand why running backs want to come to Western. We’re running the ball probably more than anyone in the country on average so if you want the ball, why wouldn’t you come here?” Grohovac laughed.
“We’ve got to give credit to our coaches because they get us prepared for games. I don’t think we get caught off guard by the other team doing too much stuff we haven’t seen before. I don’t know if there is a secret. It’s just getting your nose in there and going hard the whole four quarters.”
CFL scouts clearly believe there is more to the Mustangs’ success than just that, as evidenced by the parade of linemen that have been drafted from that program in recent seasons. In a year where quality blockers are few and far between, teams that favour a downhill rushing attack will covet Grohovac’s skillset highly.
However, the CFL is a passing league and Western has favoured a system that gets the ball out of quarterback Evan Hillock’s hands quickly. As a result, he has put comparatively few true pass sets on tape compared to players from other programs.
“That’s one thing I want to work on because it’s not something we do a ton of at Western,” he acknowledged. “We do it but other schools, especially out of our conference in the Canada West and RSEQ, they do a lot more just straight dropbacks.”
Though he lacks the quickness of some of his teammates, Grohovac has more than enough mobility to get the job done in those pass-blocking situations. He attended the College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas this January and showed well against NCAA competition, proving he could do what will be asked of him at the next level. His next test will come in Edmonton, where he can separate himself from the pack with a strong week of practice against other top Canadian prospects.
More than just a bruiser, he believes his intelligence and rigorous tape study are what truly sets him apart.
“I put a lot of time into understanding the game and the little aspects of what defences want to do and how they want our offence to react, so I think that gives me an advantage,” he said.
Playing for the Mustangs has only fueled that innate thirst for knowledge, allowing him to pick the brains of the top players around him every day in search of ways to improve.
“I think one of the great things about our culture at Western is we have such great guys around us who all do different things well. I might ask Zack Fry something about his feet because he’s got great feet, but maybe I’ll ask Elliott Beamer about head placement or what he’s doing with his hands,” he explained. “I like to pick from my own peers in some ways, but then at the same time I like to talk to David Brown or Dylan Giffen because they’ve done it at the next level and they know even more than us.”
Brown was a fourth-round pick in 2018, Giffen went in the third round in 2020, and Fry was taken in the second a year ago, but the circumstances of the 2023 CFL Draft mean that Grohovac could exceed them all.
Top prospects Matthew Bergeron and Sidy Sow are almost certainly NFL-bound, J.P. Metras winner Theo Benedet and his UBC teammate Giovanni Manu shocked many by deferring until 2024, and the highly-touted Beamer elected to retire. That leaves just Fresno State’s Dontae Bull from the list of preseason first-round favourites, a player coming off a broken leg whose lack of mobility scares some teams.
Early projections point to Grohovac as the one who could profit and slide into the first round, thanks to his ability to step in and help an offensive line-hungry team now. Don’t let the first impression fool you, he’s ready for the challenge.