2024 CFL Draft profiles: Bemidji State REC Dhel Duncan-Busby driving to the basket as ‘Americanized’ prospect

Photo courtesy: Kortney Carlin/Bemidji State Athletics

Dhel Duncan-Busby has his sights set on CFL stardom but less than two years ago, he didn’t know playing in the league was even a possibility.

“My head coach kind of let me know that I was able to be drafted up there heading into the 2022 season,” the Bemidji State receiver told 3DownNation in an interview at the College Gridiron Showcase. “I had no clue about the rules of how teams have to be split up until my ex-teammate (Brendan) Beaulieu came down and explained there needs to be a certain amount of Canadians on the roster.”

That story has become something of a CFL Draft cliché: a productive NCAA prospect learns he is eligible for National status late in his college career and turns his attention to Canadian football for the very first time. But unlike most of those other players, Duncan-Busby isn’t inheriting his citizenship through parental connections or because of a fortunately timed birth. 

Born in Vancouver but raised in Toronto for much of his childhood, the Division II standout is a Canadian in every sense but simply wasn’t interested in the gridiron when he was living north of the 49th. When he moved south for high school, like so many young prospects do these days, it was in the hopes of advancing a burgeoning basketball career rather than catching passes.

“I knew that it was part of the plan from the start because obviously, I understood that sports were just a little bit more prominent down in the States compared to Canada,” Duncan-Busby said, crediting his mother and younger sister for making the move with him. “Even now, it just means the world to me that they were able to support me being able to achieve my dream.”

That dream shifted away from the hardcourt during his senior year in Madison, Ohio when the school’s football coach convinced him to give the sport a try. After being named the team’s offensive player of the year in his first season, it became apparent that the college interest he was not receiving in basketball could be a possibility in football. After reclassifying for an additional year at Midwestern Prep Academy in Illinois, he landed a scholarship with the Beavers.

Throughout the journey, Duncan-Busby says he never felt like a foreigner trying to make it stateside and has become fully immersed in the country. He freely admits that it has been a while since he has been back in his home and native land.

“I’ve been here for a while. I’m definitely more Americanized,” he laughed sheepishly. “I kind of made a home out in Minnesota. I’d rather spend time with the guys, plus going all the way back to Toronto was a bit of a tough task at times, especially during COVID.”

That will soon change, as the cross-border baller’s prolific production has caught the attention of scouts and landed him a spot at the CFL Combine in Winnipeg. After initially feeling outmatched as an undersized freshman, he’s bulked up to a robust six-foot-one and 208 pounds and become a key cog in one of Division II’s most prolific passing offences over the past six years.

In 47 games for Bemidji State, Duncan-Busby racked up 171 receptions for 2,839 yards and 27 touchdowns, making him by far the most productive receiver available in the 2024 CFL Draft. He was named a Northern Sun Conference all-star in each of the past two years, though it wasn’t until 2023 that he became the feature target of the attack.

All-American Brendan Beaulieu was the star of the show for much of his career, earning a training camp shot with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last year. While he may have been the one to tip off his Canadian teammate about the ratio, the lessons imparted by his presence and eventual departure were far more impactful.

“His nickname was Batman, so I was by proxy Robin. He was such a smart football player. Being able to pick apart and see what he did really helped,” Duncan-Busby remarked.

“In 2023, suddenly I was the head honcho, the lead receiver on the team, and that definitely helps mould you in the leadership role. There was no more ‘I’m going to let Beaulieu do it’, I was the person that people were coming up and asking questions to. I feel like my maturity level from 2022 to ’23 is where I made my biggest jump overall.”

Beaulieu failed to crack a talented Winnipeg roster but Duncan-Busby’s passport gives him a realistic shot to surpass his mentor as a professional. It will come with some significant challenges though, as his lack of football experience on this side of the border means he’ll need to adjust to the waggle and 12-man defences the same as any American.

He’ll also need to overcome the typical stigma faced by most small-school NCAA prospects, with most scouts getting less in-person exposure to him than U Sports players and hedging their evaluation based on the calibre of opponents he had to face. 

“The level of competition is perceived to be a little bit less but great players come in all shapes and sizes,” he cautioned. “Wherever it is that you play, you’re gonna find somebody who’s just as good as a D1 person. I feel like if I chose to I could have potentially done the D1 route, I just happened to love where I was at. You find diamonds in the rough everywhere.”

Duncan-Busby believes he can be just that, with his physical frame allowing him to win at the catch point. He’s made improving his route-running a focus over the past three seasons as well and has made strides that will help him at the next level, though he admits there is work still to be done.

“I make the hard plays look easy, but then I make the easy plays look a little bit more difficult,” he acknowledged. “I’ll run a really good route, but then the next time I’ll run that same route and I might slip or something. I know I have the ability, it’s just doing it on a consistent basis.”

A willingness to point out his own faults is a feature, not a bug for the receiver. He takes technique seriously and hopes to be a coach one day, though he isn’t picky about what sport that might be in. Throughout his time in Bemidji, he’s helped run youth football camps, volunteered to spot for the local high school’s women’s gymnastics team, and interned with the Beavers’ varsity men’s basketball team as a student assistant.

That return to his roots gave him a new appreciation for the schematic side of his childhood love. While he’s confident that football is his future, Duncan-Busby couldn’t resist playing a little pickup after some pleading with the boss.

“I did practice with them a little bit,” he chuckled. “Couldn’t shoot worth a lick, the game was much faster than I obviously was used to but defensively, I was able to hold my own.”

He hopes to do far more than that when the action kicks off in Winnipeg on March 19, setting the stage for him to be selected in the 2024 CFL Draft on Tuesday, April 30.

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.