2023 CFL Draft profiles: Penn State DB Jonathan Sutherland ready to turn pro

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Barry Reeger

Three young football players left Ottawa as teenagers in the mid-2010s, transferring to Episcopal High School in Virginia with the goal of securing NCAA Division I scholarships.

The move paid off for edge rusher Luiji Vilain and defensive back Patrice Rene as they committed to Michigan and North Carolina, respectively, before entering the professional ranks. Vilain is now with the Minnesota Vikings after going unselected in last year’s NFL draft, while Rene was a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this past season.

After six years at Penn State, it’s now time for versatile defender Jonathan Sutherland to make the leap to the professional level. He played 58 games with 11 starts as a member of the Nittany Lions and recorded 137 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, six pass knockdowns, one interception, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.

“Anytime you have an opportunity to attend a school with such great tradition, big time football and academics, you’ve just gotta consider yourself blessed. I was really close with (Penn State head coach James) Franklin and his staff and I felt really comfortable making that decision,” Sutherland told 3DownNation.

“Playing with the best guys in the country, I knew that competing against these guys every single day would ultimately get me better. … I was blessed with many big-time coaches who know the game extremely well and I was able to pick their brains.”

Sutherland has spent six years at Penn State where he earned an undergraduate degree in labour and employment relations and a graduate degree in educational leadership. He aspires to be the CEO of a company when his football career is over and is accustomed to serving in leadership positions, having been a team captain for the past four seasons.

“It’s a testament to the work that I put in and how I try to carry myself and just be the best role model I can be. Putting my head down, working, being a good role model for guys who come into the program to look up to and see how guys go about their business and whatnot. It’s just been a blessing,” said Sutherland.

“I’m very grateful for my experience and I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and my mentors and my coaches.”

The versatile defender’s leadership was tested in 2021 when he was charged with a misdemeanour count of criminal mischief in a firearm-related incident.

According to Sutherland, he was at a friend’s house in central Pennsylvania where they were sharing a meal in the backyard while a gun was present. His friend allowed Sutherland to hold the firearm after removing the clip, though he was unaware that a bullet remained in the chamber. Sutherland pulled the trigger and the gun fired into a wooded area behind the home, damaging a house on the other side of the tree line.

Sutherland was subsequently placed into an accelerated rehabilitative disposition (ARD) program that required him to complete a gun safety course and pay for the damages to the home. He also did community service to have the incident expunged from his record.

“It was an honest mistake. I should have been more responsible but I own it, I’m holding myself accountable for the mistake I made. You live and you learn. Obviously, things could have gone a lot worse. It could have hit someone and thank God it didn’t,” said Sutherland.

“It’s a mistake that I’ve learned from and I’m just looking forward to moving forward and making better decisions.”

The five-foot-eleven, 202-pound defender participated in Penn State’s pro day and recorded 25 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, a 4.58-second forty-yard dash, 37.5-inch vertical jump, ten-foot, three-inch broad jump, 4.13-second short shuttle, and 6.87-second three-cone. His total on the bench press was on par with the top-performing safety who attended the NFL Combine.

Sutherland participated in the Philadelphia Eagles’ local pro day last week alongside Penn State teammates Sean Clifford and Chris Stoll as well as other prospects from the area. There was no testing at the event, though Sutherland was able to participate in drills with the team’s coaches.

The versatile defender is open to any role he’ll be asked to play at the professional level, though he feels most comfortable in the box. He has the prototypical frame for a CFL strong-side linebacker, though he could also potentially contribute at safety or weak-side linebacker. He is also accustomed to contributing on special teams, having played on all four special teams units — punt, punt return, kickoff, and kickoff return — throughout his tenure at Penn State.

“Special teams is something I take pride in,” he said. “It’s something I train for. It’s something I hold dearly to me and that I want to continue with my game as well as playing defence.”

The Ottawa Redblacks hold the first overall pick in the CFL Draft on May 2 and Sutherland is candidate to be selected with the pick. Though he still has aspirations to play in the NFL, Sutherland would be honoured to end up with his hometown team as the first overall selection north of the border.

“It would mean a lot,” said Sutherland. “I started playing this game at eight and I remember my first practice, I walked away and I wanted to be a pro. I wanted to play pro football, so just being in the position I’m in right now and having the opportunity to do that, it would be a blessing.”

According to sources, Sutherland is scheduled to visit the Redblacks on Thursday. Though he isn’t the only prospect the club is bringing in for a pre-draft interview, this appears to be confirmation that he is in consideration for the first overall pick.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.