20 players to watch at the 2024 CFL Invitational Combine

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/James Kenney

CFL Draft season is set to kick off on Friday, March 8 when more than 70 professional football hopefuls gather in Waterloo for the Invitational Combine.

An amalgamation of what was once a trio of regional events, this showcase brings together the best of the rest — prospective players not deemed good enough to receive an invite directly to the CFL Combine. This horde of underdogs will battle it out for a chance to catch the eyes of scouts and earn a coveted ticket to Winnipeg in two weeks.

Last year, 12 players were upgraded to the main event from the Invitational, eight of whom would go on to be drafted. The showcase has been a fruitful ground for talent in the past, with players like Kian Schaffer-Baker, Jordan Williams, Zach Pelehos, Adrian Greene, Jeshrun Antwi, Gavin Cobb and Vincent Forbes-Mombleau making their debuts there.

Here are 20 players who could be the next name on that list. Prospects are listed alphabetically by last name.

FB Ife Adebogun, Edmonton Huskies (Regina, Sask.)

You sure don’t see a pro running back when you turn on Adebogun’s CJFL tape, but there aren’t many six-foot-three, 235-pound ball carriers kicking around this country. The former Saint Mary’s receiver put up 577 yards in nine games last year, dragging defenders like a peewee coach running the scout team. If he surprises in the testing, there is enough raw size and power present to make him an intriguing H-Back project.

DB Richard Adubuffour, Western University (Toronto, Ont.)

It’s rare for a six-foot-three, 200-pound cornerback not to receive an invite to the main CFL Combine, let alone one who was a two-time OUA all-star for a national powerhouse. It is Adubuffour’s lack of twitch and explosiveness at the 2023 East-West Bowl that has raised red flags, given that he posted the worst ten-yard split and vertical jump among eligible DBs. If he can show some improvement in that area, his abundant physicality and natural frame give him a better shot to make a roster than most at the position.

REC Michael Boland, Aurora University (Huntley, Ill.)

A naturalized Canadian citizen raised in Illinois, the Invitational Combine will be most scouts’ first opportunity to view Boland live. With 98 receptions for 1,561 yards and 19 touchdowns in 38 career games for the Spartans, his production has been solid for the NCAA Division III powerhouse and he looks to have a well-rounded skillset. That is tough to judge based on the low level of competition though, making the testing and one-on-ones vitally important for the six-foot-one, 190-pound receiver.

LB D.K. Bonhomme, University of South Alabama (Ottawa, Ont.)

A complete wildcard in this draft, Bonhomme showed some promise for Indiana University in 2020 and looked to be part of the long-term plans at outside linebacker before falling out of favour the next season. He lasted just three games with South Alabama after transferring in 2022 and has been out of football for over a year, with limited college production to fall back on. If he can back up his Power Five pedigree with the right athletic measurables, this six-foot-two, 237-pounder could join a sizeable list of Nationals who earned CFL opportunities as NCAA flame-outs.

REC Hunter Brown, Carleton University (Brampton, Ont.)

At six-foot-one, 211 pounds, Brown isn’t the type of receiver who is going to dominate the testing or blow up the one-on-ones. However, he impresses in other areas that matter more on a football field, knowing where to settle in space and playing with a zest for contact. Beyond the 497 yards and six touchdowns he put up last year, Brown’s thick build allows him to run through defenders and contribute as a blocker better than any other receiver, projecting well for special teams.

OL Taylor Burns, McMaster University (Riverview, N.B.)

The son of former CFL defensive lineman and ageless wonder Darin Burns has been an impact starter along the Marauders’ offensive line since his rookie year in 2019. His long tenure peaked in 2021 with a first-team OUA all-star nod but hasn’t reached those heights again. It’s his heavy feet that have been exposed in the interim but he always battles to the end and has enough nastiness to leave a mark.

LB Ramsey Derbas, University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, Sask.)

The Canada West Rookie of the Year in 2019, Derbas burst onto the scene in Saskatoon before getting slowly overshadowed post-pandemic by the likes of Nick Wiebe, Seth Hundeby and Lane Novak. The six-foot-one, 230-pounder has seen his production decrease year-over-year but still has 134 career tackles to his credit. While the Invitational testing will need to answer questions regarding his range and athletic ability, nobody will doubt his ability to bang in the box.

REC Nicholas Gendron, University of Ottawa (Gatineau, Que.)

It was a little surprising not to see the Gee-Gees’ top receiver named to the main event in Winnipeg given he has 1,120 career yards, but Gendron feels like a safe bet to gain elevation. The five-foot-11, 195-pound deep threat posted above-average testing scores across the board at the East-West Bowl, including finishing with the third-best bench press and ten-yard split of the receiver group. Expect him to repeat that performance and make a couple of defenders look silly in the competitive portion.

DB Yani Gouadfel, Bishop’s University (Mitry-Mory, France)

With six interceptions, 12 pass breakups, a fumble recovery, and two touchdowns in 2023, Gouadfel touched the ball more than most offensive players in 2023 — and that’s not even counting the snaps he took as the Gaiters’ primary punter. Standing at a lanky six-foot-three and 200 pounds, the French safety is a long strider with great instincts and the range needed to play at the next level.

DE Jason Janvier-Messier, York University (Beloiel, Que.)

The list of positive things for the York Lions over the past couple of years has essentially begun and ended with Janvier-Messier, which is why it was such a blow when he went down with injury in Week 2 last year. The former second-team OUA all-star had 7.5 sacks in 14 career games while flashing some tremendous dip and bend. Though slightly undersized at six-foot-two, 230 pounds, he should be an instant special teams contributor.

OL Ethan Kalra, University of Waterloo (Acton, Ont.)

The 2024 Draft is absolutely log-jammed with top-end offensive line talent but Kalra’s initial quickness should get him a second look. The six-foot-two, 300-pound guard lacks the type of violent finish that pops on tape but he consistently wins his assignments, with obvious potential in his feet and 29 career starts under his belt.

DB Dawson Marchant, Northwestern Oklahoma State University (Surrey, B.C.)

Marchant carries the typical NCAA Division II stigma and will have to answer questions about his circuitous journey south from SFU and the CJFL. However, his size and versatility will demand attention, especially if he tests well. Few prospects have his six-foot-one, 200-pound frame and even less have shown the ability to contribute at a high level as both a safety and cornerback.

OL Owen Mueller, University of Windsor (London, Ont.)

Standing at six-foot-five and 290 pounds with over 33-inch arms, Mueller checked all the athletic boxes at the East-West Bowl two years ago when he broad jumped eight feet, seven inches and clocked a 5.33-second forty-yard dash. Unfortunately, the Lancers’ left tackle has only had eight games of starting experience due to a broken collarbone in 2022, though Windsor had its best season in decades with him in the lineup this year. He’s not a great bender but it’s hard to imagine Mueller not being one of the biggest risers in the pre-draft process.

DB Kojo Odoom, Western University (Surrey, B.C.)

Odoom had all the makings of an elite draft prospect early in his Mustangs career, winning OUA Rookie of the Year in 2019 and collecting a first-team all-star nod in 2021. Unfortunately, that was derailed by back-to-back season-ending injuries in training camp, including a ruptured ACL last year. If he is fully healthy, the five-foot-11, 190-pound corner is as twitched up and explosive as any player in this class, with his 36-inch vertical from the 2022 East-West Bowl setting an impressive testing baseline.

OL Nick Pilichos, Acadia University (Bedford, N.S.)

A personal favourite of 3Down‘s John Hodge, Pilichos has as much potential as he has bad habits from playing in the AUS. The 2023 conference all-star at centre stands at six-foot-three and 290 pounds with a mauler mentality that results in opponents being pasted to the ground by whatever means necessary — even if that means a holding cal. He’ll need to show massive improvement from the nine bench reps he posted at East-West last season but has some traits worth refining.

DT Mitchell Price, McMaster University (Caledon, Ont.)

If you find someone accepting wagers on the Invitational Combine bench press, put all your pocket change on Price, who repped 225 pounds 35 times at last year’s East-West Bowl. The six-foot, 294-pounder isn’t going to blow up any of the other tests, but he is the type of rugged gap-controlling defensive tackle that coaches quickly fall in love with.

DB Jackson Sombach, University of Regina (Regina, Sask.)

A 2022 Canada West all-star at halfback, Sombach has racked up 103 tackles and 15 pass breakups in his career but remains underrated. Based on his strong East-West Bowl, he should test as one of the best DBs across the board and has proven he can run with anyone. Unfortunately, that won’t change the fact that he is just five-foot-eight but unlike other pint-sized speedsters — shoutout to Waterloo’s Justin Succar and Bishop’s David Chaloux — the Regina standout has enough bulk to his 195-pound build to merit serious consideration.

REC Kaine Stevenson, University of Guelph (Windsor, Ont.)

A once dominant athlete for the Westshore Rebels in the CJFL, Stevenson has never truly emerged as a star with Guelph. That narrative that has also been true of recent success stories like Kian Schaffer-Baker, Kiondre Smith and Clark Barnes, with the five-foot-11, 215-pound slot sharing some of that same intrigue. Built like a running back, he’s had 100-yard games out of the backfield but can also stretch defences vertically, a skillset CFL teams should put to better use than the Gryphons.

DT James Stockwood, Oshawa Vikings RFC (Bowmanville, Ont.)

Maybe the draft’s most fascinating prospect, Stockwood was an OUA All-Rookie selection with the University of Toronto in 2019 and a CJFL All-Canadian in 2021 with the Okanagan Sun before dropping the sport in favour of rugby. The six-foot-six, 325-pound big man has suited up with both the Toronto Arrows’ academy team and Team Canada’s development squad in the past year but is now ready to take another kick at the football can. His length is mouth-watering along the defensive line, though I wonder if he would be an even better fit if flipped to the other side of the line of scrimmage.

LB Jay Turnsek, St. Francis Xavier University (North Bay, Ont.)

It would be fair to call Turnsek a tweener, as the five-foot-10, 206-pound defender is way undersized for a pro linebacker but likely not rangy enough to thrive at safety. That doesn’t change the fact that he is explosive coming downhill and hits like a freight train. As one of only six players to broad jump over 10 feet at the 2023 East-West Bowl, you just know a few scouts are willing to bet on this AUS veteran as a late-round special teamer.

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.