2023 CFL Draft profiles: Sherbrooke OL Anthony Vandal is on a mission to get meaner

Photo courtesy: Yves Longpré/Vert & Or de l'UdeS

Speak to enough aspiring pro athletes and you’ll quickly realize that delusion is part of the job description. The motivation to compete and win against the best requires levels of self-belief that the average civilian can’t fathom, often stretching the constraints of reality.

Only a handful of football players on earth truly possess the freakish physical tools to be considered elite but if you ask any late-round CFL Draft pick to compare himself to a professional, they’ll tell you their game is similar to Aaron Donald, Micah Parsons, or Tyreek Hill. They simply need the right opportunity and NFL stardom will be in their grasp.

You can’t hold such unrealistic expectations against prospects — moulded by the right coaching and tempered as they mature, it is often the very reason they excel at the level they are best suited. Nevertheless, it is oddly refreshing to encounter a player with his feet firmly rooted in reality, wise enough to grasp what his true potential is.

Anthony Vandal is just such a prospect. An overachiever on the field whose grounded personality allows him to produce a rare accurate self-comp.

“I really like Kristian Matte in Montreal. He’s reliable. My game will translate to his game,” the Sherbrooke offensive tackle offered in an interview with 3DownNation earlier this offseason. “He’s not the brightest star on the field, but he’s always in the same place at the same pace every play. He does his job every day.”

Matte is hardly a low benchmark to aspire to, the 2010 first-round pick is a 12-year pro with two East Division all-star selections to his credit. However, he is a perfect illustration of the type of player that CFL teams might hope to get by selecting Vandal in the 2023 CFL Draft — a low-profile, mature leader whose trademark is consistency.

While scouts can debate the 25-year-old’s ceiling, none will question his intangibles. He is intelligent and self-reliant, a product of learning to live on his own at a young age. Though he didn’t begin playing football until late in high school, he was offered a spot on the team at Seminaire Saint-Joseph in Trois Riviere and bet on the new sport, moving an hour away from his home in Sorel-Tracy at the age of 15.

“I saw it as an opportunity to grow as a young kid. At that time, I wanted to challenge myself to do something different,” Vandal recalled. “Opportunities like that don’t come often and that’s the best decision I ever made in my life, moving away from home. Not that I don’t like my parents, I was very comfortable at home, but that decision changed my life forever.”

Given his imposing build, the youngster unsurprisingly attracted collegiate attention. He spent three seasons a Cégep de Lévis — even further from his childhood home — and had his pick of RSEQ offers. Always clear on his academic priorities, he shocked many by turning down both provincial powerhouses, the Rouge et Or and the Carabins, in favour of the Vert et Or, where he felt the business program was a better fit.

“I remember when I called Laval, they were surprised. They were thinking they would lose me to Montreal,” Vandal chuckled. “I don’t regret it at all, it was a fit for me in multiple aspects. I really liked the culture that head coach Mathieu Lecompte was trying to create at that time and I think right now it’s created, it’s in place and we’ve seen the results on the field. We have had a better record each season since COVID.”

Well behind their francophone opponents in terms of both resources and recruiting, Sherbrooke has struggled to produce CFL calibre players at the same rate as other Quebec schools. It was clear that Vandal could be the rare exception very early in his U Sports career, but the on-field success came after some significant struggles. As an early enrollee, he believes his first winter camp was “the worst in history” and found himself humbled by the level of competition.

Undeterred, he increased the intensity of his training and arrived that summer a different player. He soon earned a starting job at right tackle as a freshman, withstanding the ultimate baptism by fire for a U Sports blocker.

“The first game of my career I played against Mathieu Betts,” Vandal said, referencing Laval’s two-time J.P. Metras Trophy-winning defensive end who signed with the NFL’s Chicago Bears following that season. “That was a good challenge. I think it went well. Zero sacks allowed, which was my target. He did get some good plays on me but I was a rookie.”

For his performance in 2018, the Vert et Or standout was named the RSEQ’s offensive rookie of the year. Still unsatisfied with his results, Vandal says he increased his efforts in the weight room and earned RSEQ all-star selections in each of the next three seasons, interrupted only by the COVID pandemic. In 2022, he added second-team All-Canadian honours to his resume.

A team captain since his sophomore season, the six-foot-three, 293-pound lineman’s long list of accolades is enough to rival any prospect in the 2023 CFL Draft. Though he is fully aware that his physical skillset is unlikely to drop any jaws at the upcoming National Combine in Edmonton, he believes he brings much more nuance to his game than other players.

“I’m a technical guy. I really like focusing on my technique and the mental aspect of the game,” Vandal explained. “When you see things before they happen, you can react quickly so you don’t think on the field. The preparation to develop that, I think it’s what gives me an edge.”

Still, there are areas of his game that he is looking to improve before jumping to the next level, particularly when it comes to demeanour — a foundational building block for any lineman. Though he has more than a few pancakes on his highlight tape, he is focused on addressing what some see as a lack of killer instinct.

“I’m mean on the field, but I want to be more mean. I want to be a little bit nastier,” the affable blocker quipped. “I’m a calm guy in life but I want to be a meaner guy on the field and it starts with the mindset.”

Assisting him towards that goal in the lead-up to the draft is newly hired Sherbrooke offensive coordinator Dominic Picard, an 11-year CFL veteran at centre who brought plenty of edge during his career. While the pair have yet to work together in-season, they have constructed a multi-phase offseason strategy for improved nastiness that goes beyond kicking puppies or stealing candy from toddlers. Rather it involves tape study, weight training, and fieldwork.

“He’s a mean guy. I’m in good hands with that,” Vandal laughed about Picard, stressing that he meant on the field, not off of it.

“He’s a guy that has a lot of experience in the league. I’m really happy that he’s in Sherbrooke. It’s a good opportunity for me to work with him, for sure.”

The first stage of their plan involved participation in the College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas in early January, where Vandal tested himself against NCAA competition. While some viewed the event as a potential launching pad to the NFL, he approached it as a learning tool to show him where improvement was needed before the Combine, which will follow a similar competitive format this year.

What is clear is that he will face the same challenge that many Canadian offensive tackles do throughout the draft process. After starting as a bookend for the entirety of his collegiate career, scouts question whether he has the elite foot speed necessary to stick on the outside. Kicking inside to guard seems a likely possibility but that isn’t without challenges, as Vandal has some stiffness and needs to improve his anchor.

“It’s more natural for me to play tackle because it’s been my position for the past five years, but I’m really open and I want to be more confident as a guard. I’ll take as many reps as possible,” he said. “I’ll just play whatever they tell me to play. If it’s left guard, if it’s right guard, if it’s centre, I don’t mind. But I think I have good enough feet so maybe I can play tackle a little bit at the next level.”

In a weak draft for offensive linemen, Vandal’s impressive resume and experience as a tackle will be at a premium. Currently projected to be taken in the mid-rounds, a strong performance in Edmonton could dramatically improve his stock.

No matter where he is selected, the grounded youngster has a bright future ahead of him. On the cusp of completing his master’s degree in business administration, Vandal plans to write his thesis during his rookie season and one day hopes to launch his own consulting firm.

In the meantime, he is focused on bringing his trademark consistency to the CFL and proving that elite francophone players can come from places other than Laval and Montreal.

“I just want to put our university on the map. I know there are some guys already in the CFL from Sherbrooke but I want to get some respect for my school,” Vandal insisted. “We’re legit and we produce really good players as well.”

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.