2023 Hec Crighton Trophy watch list: 10 names who could take home U Sports’ highest honour

Photo courtesy: Laval Rouge et Or

The 2023 U Sports season is set to kick off on Friday when the defending champion Laval Rouge et Or travel to Sherbrooke to take on the Vert et Or at 7:00 p.m. EDT.

Every year, Canadian university football gives fans a glimpse at the stars of tomorrow. While every player enters the season in pursuit of the ultimate Vanier Cup goal, a select few will earn themselves individual accolades as well. None is more prestigious than the Hec Crighton Trophy.

Canada’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy has been claimed by a laundry list of marquee names — from NFL players like Brian Fryer and Tim Tindale, to CFL legends like Bob Cameron, Andy Fantuz and Brad Sinopoli, to trailblazing quarterbacks like Chris Flynn, Andrew Buckley and Tre Ford.

In honour of the next wave of talent taking the field, here are the 10 players with the best shot to add their name to that impressive list come season’s end.

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

1. Kevin Mital, REC, Université Laval (Saint-Hubert, Que.)

The reigning Hec Crighton winner has to be considered the overwhelming favourite to become the seventh player in history to earn the award twice. Mital was a man amongst boys last season, racking up 58 receptions for 751 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight regular season games. The six-foot-one, 215-pound transfer from Syracuse went on to amass 27 catches for 371 yards and five majors in four playoff games, adding a touchdown pass in a Vanier Cup win where he was named MVP. Recent assault charges are not currently expected to interfere with his ability to play this season and he could soon challenge Andy Fantuz’s status as the greatest receiver in U Sports history.

Photo courtesy: U Sports

2. Keon Edwards, RB, Western University (Toronto, Ont.)

A perennial Hec contender in the Mustangs’ run-first attack, Edwards is back for a fourth season after going unselected in the 2023 CFL Draft. The five-foot-11, 230-pound bell cow was the nation’s only thousand-yard rusher last season, averaging 129 yards per game and scoring nine times through eight contests. With his 2022 backfield partner Edouard Wanadi — who was fifth in U Sports rushing in his own right — suspended for PEDs, even more touches could be coming the way of the veteran back.

Photo courtesy: Rich Lam/UBC Thunderbirds

3. Isaiah Knight, RB, University of British Columbia (Ottawa, Ont.)

In terms of production, Knight’s 859 total yards and five touchdowns last season falls well behind the rest of this list but the six-foot-two, 208-pound back is arguably the most physically gifted in the country. With quarterback Garrett Rooker returning from a serious injury, the third-year man will have to carry even more of the load and will get to do so behind an offensive line that contains two elite pro prospects in Theo Benedet and Giovanni Manu. In a conference that doesn’t have many marquee offensive stars returning, he’s the clear front-runner to receive their nomination.

Photo courtesy: Peter Oleskevich/St. FX Athletics

4. Malcolm Bussey, RB, St. Francis Xavier University (Hammond Plains, N.S.)

No AUS player has won the Hec since Erik Glavic in 2007 but Bussey at least gives the conference an outside shot. The five-foot-11, 200-pound ball carrier has been electric in each of his first two seasons, averaging over 110 yards rushing per game in each. His 12 regular season touchdowns last year also tied him with Mital for the national lead, making him a deserving finalist for the award despite the anti-Atlantic bias.

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

5. Evan Hillock, QB, Western University (Hamilton, Ont.)

Realistically, as long as the Mustangs’ backfield keeps churning out yards, it will be very difficult for Hillock to generate serious awards hype. However, a weaker running back stable could put more pressure on the third-year starter than ever before and he’s risen to every challenge thus far. After winning the Vanier Cup as a true freshman, the six-foot-three, 205-pound pivot experienced no sophomore slump last year and finished third in the nation with 16 touchdown passes while never throwing a single pick. That’s a remarkable statline, no matter the offence.

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

6. Arnaud Desjardins, QB, Université Laval (Montreal, Que.)

Chances are that another strong season from Desjardins will only result in keeping the award in his top receiver’s hands, but nobody is playing the quarterback position at a higher level in U Sports right now. The six-foot-five, 215-pound passer’s 73 percent completion rate was tops in the country last year, as were his 20 touchdowns. It was immediately evident at the CFL Combine this offseason that the reigning Vanier Cup winner throws a better ball than any of his peers, even as an underclassman.

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/Laurier Athletics

7. Quentin Scott, RB, Wilfrid Laurier University (Brampton, Ont.)

Despite finishing third in rushing last season with 924 yards and seven touchdowns, it still felt like no one was talking about Quentin Scott. The five-foot-eight, 183-pound speedster averaged 7.3 yards per carry en route to a second-team OUA all-star selection last year, but his best is yet to come with a burgeoning Golden Hawks squad.

Photo courtesy: Don Voaklander/Alberta Golden Bears

8. Eli Hetlinger, QB, University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alta.)

As a freshman in 2022, Hetlinger started just five games for the Golden Bears before succumbing to injury. However, his 279.2 yards per game sneakily finished third in the country and his nine-to-four touchdown-to-interception ratio was promising for a young player. With two elite Canada West quarterbacks now graduated in Mason Nyhus and Des Catellier, the six-foot, 185-pound Hetlinger is well positioned to fill the void come awards season.

Photo courtesy: Matt Garies/McGill Athletics

9. Eloa Latendresse-Regimbald, QB, McGill University (Montreal, Que.)

Last season’s Peter Gorman Trophy winner as the sport’s top rookie should now find himself in the race for the main prize, despite not playing for a traditional powerhouse program. At six-foot-four and 185 pounds, he’s a legitimate dual-threat in the vein of 2021 Hec winner Tre Ford, rushing for 602 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman. Latendresse-Regimbald also threw for 2,004 yards, eight touchdowns, and nine interceptions, making him a dark horse if he takes the next step as a passer.

Photo courtesy: Montreal Carabins

10. Jonathan Senecal, QB, Université de Montreal (Montreal, Que.)

Gifted with the most pure arm talent of this quarterback group, Senecal had a somewhat underwhelming second season at the helm of the Carabins. The six-foot, 200-pound pivot averaged an impressive 273.4 yards per game but recorded as many touchdowns as interceptions with eight apiece. However, a former UConn commit leading a powerhouse program virtually guaranteed to threaten in the postseason can’t be counted out.

On the fringes:  AK Gassama, REC, Manitoba | Garrett Rooker, QB, UBC | Olivier Roy, QB, Concordia | Darius Simmons, REC, McGill | Anthony Soles, RB, Queen’s | Joey Zorn, RB, Windsor

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.