2023 CFL Draft profiles: Saskatchewan’s Dayton Black transitioned from record-setting QB to top OL prospect

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

There are a finite number of people on Earth with the unique combination of size and athleticism to thrive on the offensive line and Scott Flory wasn’t about to waste one of them.

The head coach of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies can be considered something of an expert in that area. Over the course of his 15-year career with the Montreal Alouettes, Flory was named a league all-star nine times and took home the trophy for Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman twice. Since the Canadian Football Hall of Famer has moved into the coaching ranks, he has made his school a factory for top blockers.

So when he sat Dayton Black down after his freshman year and told him his future was along the offensive line, it meant something.

“You’re not gonna argue with Scott Flory on that one, that’s for sure,” Black said with a chuckle at the CFL Combine last month.

“He’s taught me everything. I wouldn’t rather have anybody else in my corner or somebody else to teach me o-line. He’s arguably one of the best o-linemen to ever play in the CFL, so just being able to pick his brain every day has helped propel me to this level.”

Given Flory’s stamp of approval, it’s unsurprising that Black has blossomed into one of the top prospects at his position in the 2023 CFL Draft. What is remarkable is where the six-foot-five, 298-pounder played before he made the switch: quarterback.

At Neelin High School in Brandon, Man., Black was considered to be an elite QB recruit. As a senior in 2017, he threw for 1,981 yards and 20 touchdowns in just seven games, breaking the Winnipeg High School Football League’s all-time AA/AAA single-season passing yardage record. He broke five more records that year, including setting a new single-game passing mark of 493 yards.

Turn on the tape and the 250-pound high schooler looked like a dad who had strapped on the pads for an easy throw around with his kids.

“I was a bit like Ben Roethlisberger, a big gunslinger that liked to sit in the pocket,” Black grinned. “I grew up playing baseball so playing quarterback was just natural. I love throwing the ball around. Just sitting back in that pocket and slinging it as far as I could was the best part.”

Some U Sports programs would have been willing to keep the gargantuan signal caller under centre, but the Huskies knew exactly where they projected his future success. Flory took his time though, allowing Black to play defensive end as a freshman before making the switch.

To his credit, the youngster embraced his new role with a passion. Having never taken a snap at the position before 2019, he had a tremendous amount of catching up to do.

“Looking back at it now, with the limited experience I have, I definitely would have liked to have started a little earlier,” he admitted.

“It was definitely not easy. You go from throwing the ball and not getting hit a lot or playing d-line and running at someone to now you’re playing o-line with grown men running at you while you’re going backwards. It’s a big challenge, for sure, but I enjoyed it.”

Black did not play in a single game during his first season on offence and was given another unexpected developmental year due to the COVID pandemic. He was a backup when play resumed in 2021, dressing for eight games without a single start.

While working his way up the depth chart, he got the opportunity to watch several pro prospects including 2022 second-round pick Noah Zerr, 2021 third-round pick Connor Berglof, 2020 first-round pick Mattland Riley, and 2020 seventh-round pick Nicholas Summach. Each provided him with valuable insight into the position.

“All the technique and fundamentals, teaching me the little tricks that they’ve picked up over the years because they’ve been playing it their whole life,” Black said. “They just showed me how hard you’ve got to work to play in the trenches and how to be the meanest, toughest guy you can be.”

He finally made good on all those years of development in 2022, starting all 12 games at left tackle as the Huskies advanced to the Vanier Cup for the second season in a row. In the process, he was named a Canada West all-star and caught the attention of CFL scouts.

Still, with just one year of meaningful playing time under his belt, Black believes he has yet to put all the pieces together and earn the status of an elite offensive lineman.

“I don’t know if I’m truly there yet but I’m working as hard as I can,” he said. “I’m starting to figure things out. Now I’m able to watch my own film and pick up things that I’m doing wrong and figure out how to improve.”

“O-line’s a very technically sound position and I don’t think anybody, no matter what league you’re in, is ever at their full potential. I don’t know if there’s ever been a guy in the CFL or NFL to have a perfect game at o-line. It’s just that hard, so there’s always something to work on.”

As raw as his game might still be, no amount of humility could possibly deflect from what Black was able to accomplish in Edmonton during this year’s CFL Combine. Despite entering the week as a bit of a sleeper, he looked like the class of this year’s offensive line group with three dominant days of practice.

With prototypical size and length, Black has good feet and impressive athletic ability — no surprise due to his quarterbacking past. He has the power to back it up, stonewalling opponents with a tremendous natural anchor and strong hands. Add to that high football intelligence and a nasty competitive edge and you have the makings of an elite prospect.

With 2023 being dubbed a weak year for offensive linemen and no consensus top player at the position, Black’s high ceiling has worked him into the conversation to be the first big man off the board on draft night.

“That’s always my mentality. I came in here wanting to be number one,” he acknowledged. “I’m a competitor. I just have that will in me, the refusal to lose. I hate it. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves, losing. I come in with the mindset that not only am I gonna try and be the best, but I’m gonna be the hardest worker and the most coachable.”

With several teams in need of help up front and few worthy candidates for selection, Black won’t have a lack of suitors in the early rounds of the draft. While any professional opportunity would be welcomed, there is one organization in particular that he hopes to hear call his name: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Though he has loved every minute of the past five years spent in the heart of Roughriders country, he never lost his childhood love for their prairie rival. When committing to the Huskies out of high school, he and fellow 2023 draft prospect Charlie Ringland made a pact to never forsake their Manitoba allegiances.

“When we made that transition over to Sask, we said we’d never switch to the green side. Me and him, we’ve bled blue through the last five years at the dogs and there’s been a lot of heated arguments when the Bombers beat the Riders every year,” Black laughed.

“It’s always been a dream to go wear the Blue and Gold and getting to play for that coaching staff, Marty Costello and Mike O’Shea, you don’t get much better than that. They’ve got a great culture out there and it’s just something I would love to be a part of.”

Black considers current Bombers’ right guard Patrick Neufeld to be his professional idol, admiring his toughness on the field and work in the community off of it. He may soon follow in the footsteps of the U of S alum, kicking inside at the next level like so many Canadian tackles have to do.

There will be questions as to whether he has the flexibility to make that move to guard, with critics pointing to his lean lower body and lack of knee bend. Others may see him as a true tackle prospect with the right development.

Whether he stays on the end or bumps over one spot, you can be certain that it won’t be the wildest transition Black has made in his football career.

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.