2023 CFL Draft profiles: Delaware State RB Thomas Bertrand-Hudon carving out new role after injuries

Photo courtesy: Delaware State

The competitive periods of the CFL Combine generate plenty of winners and losers, but a player rarely sees his draft stock rise while standing on the sideline.

Delaware State running back Thomas Bertrand-Hudon might be the exception. Nursing a UCL tear in his elbow, the native of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Que. logged an impressive day of athletic tests last month and then spent most of the three days of practice watching. Yet, multiple CFL evaluators still pointed to his level of engagement and active listening when asked about standouts from the week, checking an important box during what amounts to an elaborate job interview.

“I was always told that you have to stay engaged if you want to make it on to the roster and be able to actually play,” Bertrand-Hudon said in an interview with 3DownNation. “For me, it was just second nature and I’m pretty happy that people saw it actually.”

His elbow is only a minor concern and will be ready to go for training camp but unfortunately, finding ways to stay engaged while hurt is nothing new for the young back. He is only two years removed from a brutal run of injuries, tearing his shoulder during the 2021 spring season only to return in the fall and tear his Achilles.

Two surgeries in less than a year left him contemplating retirement, but he has only returned stronger.

“I thought something was telling me to stop playing football but through those times I found even a greater love for the game,” he explained. “I was with the right people and I realized that whenever I’m in a dark place, my comfort is football.”

For Bertrand-Hudon, it has always been that way. The sport seemed to call to him from the beginning, even when he was registered for Little League baseball instead.

“My parents have a picture of me sitting at third base during a game, looking at the football practice happening right next to us,” he laughed. “I signed up for football the next year and I’ve been playing running back since I was eight years old.”

Almost immediately, he began to dream of playing at the highest level. Not wanting his language to hold him back, he enrolled in English classes to ensure he would have the skill set to play anywhere in Canada or the US. Eventually, he attended an Anglophone CEGEP in Champlain College Lennoxville to further that goal, winning a provincial title alongside other top CFL Draft prospects Michael Brodrique and Siriman Harrison Bagayogo.

Still, the traction from schools was limited. He toured the east coast of the United States, attending NCAA prospect camps with the help of former Kent State player Yves Dossous but received limited interest. Now five-foot-11 and 227 pounds, most schools projected him as a linebacker — a position he had never played — and were only interested in bringing him in as a walk-on. That was not an endeavour that Bertrand-Hudon could afford to undertake financially.

Settling for a spot north of the border, he committed to Carleton University and enrolled early to take part in the team’s offseason program. He was all set to make an early impact for the Ravens when he received an unexpected phone call.

“I had already played the spring game and everything when Yves called me up and said there was an opening at Delaware State and they might offer you after summer camp,” Bertrand-Hudon recalled.

“Once I knew that, it was like a calling. I’ve always wanted to go down south and try to play a little bit of American football over there, so I went to see head coach Steve Sumarah and ask him if it was okay for me to leave. He told me to go follow my dreams and the rest is history.”

As promised, the Canadian was placed on scholarship by the Hornets following training camp. Allowed to stick at running back, he used his redshirt and spent his first season on the scout team, adjusting to the level of play in the FCS.

“The competition, everybody fights for a spot over there. It wasn’t an easy ride,” he explained. “I had to fight for my spot. The speed was a lot faster than what I had played before and it made me a better player, learning how to fight adversity.”

After a year of seasoning, he was ready to make an impact. As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Bertrand-Hudon carried 111 times in eight games, racking up 508 yards and five touchdowns while leading the team in rushing. It seemed like the start of a productive career.

Then came the COVID pandemic and a pair of devastating injuries. Over the next two years, he played just eight more contests and was limited to 53 carries for 226 yards. By the time he was fully healthy, the starting running back job he once seemed destined for was no longer available.

Rather than pout, the big-bodied back carved out a different role for himself.

“It was a little frustrating but at the same time, we had a great freshman running back,” Bertrand-Hudon acknowledged. “I went to go see the coaches and I just wanted to get on the field, so that’s why I took a fullback position on certain plays. Whatever I could do, I decided to play and I believed in what they wanted me to do.”

Converting Canadian running backs into fullbacks is a tired CFL trope but Delaware State made the move a year early in certain packages, allowing Bertrand-Hudon to embrace a rugged, short-yardage role. He finished third on the roster with 75 carries for 296 yards in 11 games but tied for the team lead with five touchdowns.

While prospects who see their production decrease throughout their college career are typically regarded with concern, the CFL hopeful believes he has proved he can contribute no matter the circumstances.

“I’m pretty sure my coaches thought that I wasn’t the same player after the injuries so of course my numbers went down. But every time I played and even when I started at the end of this year against Campbell, I had a career-high game,” he said. “I just stayed ready the entire time.” 

In the final game of his collegiate career, Bertrand-Hudon carried 28 times for 139 yards and a touchdown. Performances like that, coupled with the elite change of direction numbers he posted at the CFL Combine, suggest that there is value in employing him as a primary ball carrier at the next level. Meanwhile, his size, strength and degree of special teams experience point to future success as a fullback.

In the prospect’s eyes, he’s the perfect hybrid of both positions.

“I think I can be a great fullback or tailback honestly,” Bertrand-Hudon said. “I can run the ball very well, my strength is reading the line on Zone runs, but my other strength is blocking. I can be a good dual-threat back and move pretty well at my weight.”

With Illinois’ Chase Brown headed for future NFL stardom, the running back class in the 2023 CFL Draft leaves much to be desired. Bertrand-Hudon’s traits place him a tier above the rest and he is projected to be selected in the mid-rounds, drawing comparisons to players like current Ottawa Redblack Ante Milanovic-Litre.

With his versatility and intangibles, it’s not hard to imagine him being the darling of some team’s draft board.

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.