2023 CFL Draft profiles: Toronto DB Tolu Ahmed is a master in the art of coverage

Photo courtesy: Toronto Varsity Blues

After decades of dark-age thinking, the Canadian defensive back renaissance is upon us.

With Sydney Brown’s third-round selection on Friday night, four Canadian DBs have been selected in the NFL Draft in the past three years — one more than its entire history before 2021. Other players, like Tevaughn Campbell and Tyrell Ford, have translated elite traits into their own free-agent opportunities south of the border. And in the CFL, safety is no longer the only spot where a player in the secondary can be selected highly.

In the 2023 CFL Draft on Tuesday, Guelph cornerback Siriman Harrison Bagayogo could be a beneficiary of that shift in thinking, but he isn’t the only lockdown cover man available. Toronto’s Tolu Ahmed has emerged as a sleeper prospect at the position, boasting impressive length and fluidity.

Like any good Renaissance man, the visual arts student will enter the league with his sketchbook in hand. Since he was a child, drawing has been the only passion that could rival sports and he now has an extensive artistic portfolio, one that he might leverage into a creative career after football.

“Sometimes I sell them but I don’t really do it for money. I do it for peace of mind and balance,” Ahmed said of his art in a recent interview with 3DownNation. “It’s just something I’ve always done. Even when I’m not realizing it, I’ll see myself sketching stuff.”

Art might calm the mild-mannered corner, but it will never douse his competitive fire. That much has been obvious in the lead-up to the draft, where Ahmed has had to work harder than most to earn the respect he deserves.

Despite three years of high-quality play as a starter with the Varsity Blues, the 22-year-old was not initially invited to the CFL Combine in Edmonton. He was forced to earn his ticket through the Invitational Combine in Waterloo, a snub that left him feeling more than a little disrespected.

“I’ll be honest, I was pissed off,” Ahmed admitted. “I felt like I should have been invited in the first place. I wasn’t too happy going into the Invitational. But as we can see, it worked out in the end.”

The six-foot-two, 197-pound defender easily advanced to the main event with excellent athletic testing and a dominant session in the one-on-ones. He continued to prove he belonged once he arrived in the Alberta capital, sending a message to CFL teams.

“I’m here to wake people up,” he stressed. “I feel like I’ve put in the work. I didn’t get the accolades, but I don’t really play for the accolades. It’d be nice to get that but I can’t control that. I can only control how much work I put in.”

Photo courtesy: Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

Working his way up from the bottom is par for the course for the Saskatoon-born, Ottawa-raised prospect. He was hardly an elite recruit coming out of high school having picked up the sport in Grade 11 after playing basketball for most of his life.

He chose the University of Toronto, a historically weak program, for the very reason most avoid it, hoping to contribute to a rebuild. His play in the secondary has since helped the team reach the OUA playoffs in back-to-back seasons, but he was originally supposed to play a different role entirely.

“I started at defensive end and I was kind of skinny but when I was in high school, I could get away with it. I was coming off the edge and getting to the quarterback,” Ahmed recalled with a chuckle, pointing out the relative absurdity of him lining up on the edge now.

“I was 175 pounds coming in as a first year. I thought I could put on the weight, I had the frame for it, but no.”

Ahmed’s tenure on the defensive line lasted just a single game in 2018, getting him hurt in the process. He was quickly switched to the defensive backfield, taking to the position naturally despite having never covered anyone before.

He instantly knew he could thrive in his new spot, but the point was driven home during a friendly 7-on-7 tournament between universities that offseason in Mississauga. He excelled and earned his way onto the field as a sophomore, notching 25 tackles, seven pass breakups and a pick in his first season in the secondary.

“I picked it up pretty quick because I had the speed for it,” he said, a point proven by his 4.6-second forty-yard dash. “Slants and stuff, I was getting kind of cooked because my feet weren’t there yet but I picked it up pretty quick.”

Since then, Ahmed has shut down one side of the field for U of T’s opponents. After the COVID-imposed hiatus, he returned with 31 tackles and four pass breakups in 2021. His 2022 season was quieter with just 16 tackles and a single pass breakup, but that’s what happens when teams stop throwing your direction.

While official honours have been elusive for the shutdown corner, OUA receivers will quietly acknowledge him as one of their most difficult matchups. Much like his fellow top-ranked DB, Bagayogo, that is a testament to his press man coverage skill set.

For CFL teams, that creates a dilemma when evaluating how to fit Ahmed into their Zone heavy defensive schemes.

“Being one-on-one, on an island, I relish in that. But I realize that opportunity doesn’t really come too much in Canadian football, or at least in the CFL,” he admitted. “I’m gonna have to be able to play off and I can do that too.”

Zone coverage takes a different toolbox for success; one less reliant on the fluid hips and long reach that Ahmed possesses. As his past indicates, it won’t be the wildest transition he’s ever attempted and he already knows how he needs to change.

“You’ve got to read more, to see more of the field. You can’t just focus on the person in front of you,” Ahmed explained. “You’ve got to see what two or three is doing. You’ve got to see what the quarterback is doing. It’s more information to download before you act on it.”

For a man who has spent his life observing his surroundings with a pencil in hand, meticulously putting every detail down on paper, that should not be a challenge at all.

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.