2023 CFL Draft profiles: Waterloo REC James Basalyga draws motivation from all-star snub

Photo: Michael Scraper/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Joining the ranks of U Sports All-Canadians is like an exclusive club. Only the finest are let in; players who dominate at the collegiate level and often become impactful pros.

In 2022, James Basalyga looked destined to receive those laurels. From a production standpoint, the Waterloo receiver was a lock — fourth in the country with 621 yards through the air and tied for third with seven touchdowns. With eight receiver spots between the two teams of honourees, certainly, there would be a place for him.

And yet, the 23-year-old did not find himself among those brought on stage at the U Sports awards banquet. In fact, he was not even nominated out of his conference. Eight other receivers from the OUA received an all-star selection last year — just one was more productive than the Warriors’ deep threat.

“I’m not gonna lie, I was a little upset at the guys who were making those decisions for who gets those accolades,” Basalyga admitted during a recent interview with 3DownNation.

“I thought I deserved it, because the year before I got second-team all-star and I had not as good of a season. This year, we had a worse team, especially on the offensive side of the ball, and I was able to put up better numbers so I was a little frustrated and confused.”

The unexpected snub raised eyebrows across the Canadian university sports landscape and Basalyga never received an official explanation for the omission. Even his teammate, fifth-year receiver Gordon Lam, made the All-OUA second-team despite posting 200 fewer yards and six fewer majors. 

As he now prepares to make the jump to the CFL, Basalyga has shaken off the sleight but won’t deny that it has given him a little extra fuel to use at the next level.

“I did my best to ignore it,” he said. “Sitting there and talking about it’s not gonna do anything for me, so I just put it in the back of my head and use it for motivation whenever I need it.”

Scouts see what awards voters didn’t when evaluating the five-foot-11, 188-pound speedster for the 2023 CFL Draft. He has shown the ability to consistently take the top off of a defence and clocked the third-fastest forty-yard dash time of any receiver in this year’s class at 4.56 seconds. He’s also tantalizingly explosive, posting a 39.5-inch vertical jump — a number exceeded only by likely NFL signee Jared Wayne.

The receiver’s critics will question his route running, noting that the bulk of his production came on vertical routes or when schemed open. Most will see a prospect who has room for growth as a professional, with all the right tools to be developed.

That’s always been the case for Basalyga. He didn’t start playing football until encouraged by a cousin in 11th grade, previously excelling on the ice as a hockey player. The two sports didn’t neatly translate to each other, but his athletic talent did.

“That year, I went out to camp and I ran a hand-timed 4.6 and everybody told me I looked like a hockey player. I was running sideways,” he grinned. “I said if I can run a 4.6 out of a hockey player stance, I think I can probably make it somewhere in this sport.”

That prediction quickly came true and Basalyga established himself as an integral part of Sir Winston Churchill High School’s undefeated 2017 squad, winning an OFSAA Bowl. That attracted the attention of college recruiters, including the University of Waterloo.

Though they weren’t a traditional powerhouse, the Warriors could offer the Thunder Bay native early playing time that others couldn’t. Most importantly, they had one very special ace up their sleeve that no university in the country could match.

“Tre Ford was the big selling point. All they had to tell me was that he was there,” Basalyga recalled, referencing the dynamic dual-threat quarterback who was drafted eighth overall by the Edmonton Elks a year ago.

“He’s an athlete. He’s a dog. He gets after it. I felt a connection there as far as with that team in a role where I could be making a difference and seeing playing time maybe sooner than other big-name teams. But I figured if Tre went there, then there must be something there.”

Ford wasn’t the only big-name talent helping to lead a Waterloo resurgence. His twin brother, Tyrell Ford, was a star on defence, while current Hamilton Tiger-Cats receiver Tyler Ternowski was the primary beneficiary of the quarterback’s offensive brilliance.

While “Tyler the Terror” was the star, the school’s receiving corps was especially deep upon Basalyga’s arrival. With so many veterans already established, it took several years to be fully welcomed into the inner circle.

“I was a first-year guy, they don’t want me to come in and take their spot. They weren’t too nice to me, but they were able to help me along and give me the tips when I needed it, tell me if I messed up my route or what I should do differently,” he explained. “Overall, they made it kind of hard on me but they also gave me the tips I needed to become good. They didn’t baby me at all.”

Fortunately for Basalyga, he had considerable practice integrating with new teams and friend groups. When he was 10 years old, his family moved from northern Ontario to Delta Junction, Alaska for four years. Though they eventually returned to Thunder Bay, he rarely stayed put and spent most of his childhood summers living with family in Florida and Georgia.

“I feel like it helped me be comfortable being uncomfortable. I feel ready to move and start a life wherever and I feel like I can connect with people anywhere,” he said. “Obviously, the difference between the States and Canada isn’t massive but it definitely gives you some eye-opening experiences and gives you a little bit of a background that’s broader than just one place.”

That social intelligence, coupled with exceptional play on the field, eventually made him an impactful part of the Warriors’ locker room. After making a single catch as a freshman, Basalyga hauled in 13 receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown in his second year. He returned after a COVID-imposed hiatus with 32 catches for 483 yards and four scores in 2021, showing consistent improvement every season of his career. 

Part of that was a burgeoning chemistry with the very man who attracted him to Waterloo in the first place, Tre Ford. The pair frequently found time to do extra work with each other on the field, time that changed the way that Basalyga plays the game.

“He throws the ball like it’s a frickin baseball pitch, first of all,” he quipped. “It’s as hard as he can almost all the time so you’ve got to get stronger hands and make sure that you’re in the right place at the right time so that ball is hitting you and not the defender. I’d say that makes you more alert.”

Little did Ford know that his receiver’s aptitude in that area came from another, unlikely source.

“I’ve been working on my hand-eye coordination since I was a baby. My mom actually used to throw me stuff randomly, just to keep me on my toes and see if I could catch it,” Basalyga laughed.

While their time together was fruitful, it won’t be lost on CFL talent evaluators that the receiver’s best season came after his elite quarterback left — whether or not U Sports or the OUA chooses to acknowledge it. He is now looking to join Ford at the professional level and projects as a mid-round selection when the draft kicks off on May 2.

Still, Basalyga suggests that the star signal caller’s influence will be felt in whatever success he has in the CFL.

“His work ethic is something to be admired and he kind of taught me a bit in that regard,” he said. “Seeing a guy like him, that is that good, believe in me really gave me a lot of confidence.”

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.