2024 CFL Draft profiles: Hillsdale College RB Michael Herzog battles size questions with big accolades

Photo courtesy: Reva Ludwig/Hillsdale College Athletics

For the past several seasons, Canada has confidently fielded a contender for the title of best running back in the NCAA. The prolific careers of Chuba Hubbard at Oklahoma State and Chase Brown at Illinois left many feeling like 2023 was a down year, with no star backs emerging.

That was far from the case, however, as one of the best seasons ever by a Canadian running back was taking place just outside the view of most football fans. At little Hillsdale College, an oft-forgotten Division II school in Michigan, Michael Herzog was putting up numbers that would make Brady Oliveira blush while receiving almost no appreciation north of the border.

“It was an extremely special season, I only wish I had done it with a better record,” Herzog told 3DownNation earlier this offseason. “We went 6-5, so that kind of stings, but being able to get those accolades means nothing without the other guys on the offence. I just wish we could have had a better season at the end of the day.”

The native of Windsor, Ont. packed a whole heck of a lot into those 11 games, regardless of his team’s struggles overall. In total, the Chargers handed him the ball 230 times for 1,333 yards and a whopping 21 touchdowns. His school scoring record was capped in the finale against Ohio Dominican, when a five-touchdown performance from Herzog willed Hillsdale to their fifth straight victory and secured a better than .500 record despite an 0-4 start to the year.

The accolades rolled in from all sides for the diminutive back, earning him MVP honours for the G-MAC conference. In addition to regional honours, he was named an All-American by multiple outlets and was one of nine finalists for the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II’s version of the Heisman. Despite losing out on that award, he earned distinction as the lone running back in contention.

Recognition from his home country has been much more difficult to come by. The Cornish Trophy, given every year to the top Canadian in NCAA football, focused its nominations purely on those in the FBS ranks, leaving Herzog off their list of finalists. There were no flashy #Herzog4Harlon campaigns on social media either. And as he approaches the 2024 CFL Draft, a pro career in the CFL is anything but certain.

That reality has been driven home by the journey of his brother Zach, who had his own prolific career as a safety at Hillsdale. Despite multiple 100 tackle seasons and all-conference honours, the elder Herzog fell to the seventh round of the 2022 CFL Draft where he was picked by Saskatchewan. He never made it out of training camp and after transferring to UBC to take advantage of an additional year of U Sports eligibility, couldn’t stick with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a free agent.

“I thought it was kind of frustrating watching him go from team to team,” Herzog admitted. “It helped me see it for what it is, how it’s sometimes more of a business and how easy it is to get cut from a team. It kind of puts things into perspective.”

The challenge facing the brothers is almost identical in its two-pronged nature. Scouts will always be skeptical of their high level of production given the level of competition they’ve gone up against, with comparatively few future professionals on the opposite side of the white stripe. More importantly, few in Canadian football have faith that a five-foot-eight, 200-pound prospect can stick at the next level.

“I’ve gone against guys who are much bigger than me, guys who have been All-Americans on other teams, D-ends and linebackers who I’ve had to pass block against and run the ball against, and I’ve had no problem,” Herzog offered as a rebuttal. “I think I’ve really excelled going against those guys. I don’t think my size is much of a question there. For what I lack in size, I have in quickness and agility.”

Getting overlooked is nothing new for the pint-sized runner. Despite starring on an offence at Holy Names Catholic High School that also featured the number one recruit in the country, 2024 NFL Combine standout Theo Johnson, he wasn’t satisfied with the college offers he had on the table. It was by virtue of his brother’s already budding status at Hillsdale that he was able to find a home at the collegiate level, but even that came with challenges.

After locking down a sub-par group of receivers at the Chargers’ annual recruiting camp, he originally committed as a defensive back just like his older sibling. He quickly flipped to offence in training camp but a back-log of senior running backs necessitated a move to slot receiver. Despite being out of position, he appeared in seven games as a true freshman and caught four passes for 77 yards while also returning kicks.

Coaches rewarded his willingness to get on the field any way possible by moving Herzog back to his natural running back spot. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed his backfield debut and then a torn ACL in training kiboshed it. In one fell swoop, he was forced to miss both the 2021 spring and fall seasons.

2022 was the first time that the Canadian back was able to receive a hand-off in live game action, a full three-year gap between carries. He responded to that adversity by toting the rock 200 times for 940 yards and eight majors that season, giving only a taste of what was to come.

It is hard not to love the way that the small-school star runs with the ball, blending an explosive burst with a surprising willingness to absorb contact and keep on going. In January, Herzog proved he could compete with the big boys at the College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Tex. and was the most productive rusher on a field full of FBS players, scoring a pair of touchdowns in the scrimmage. That, along with some sneaky receiving ability that went largely unutilized at Hillsdale, left several CFL scouts far more impressed than they expected.

That doesn’t change the fact that Herzog’s draft status will be largely determined by his ability to hold up as a pass blocker or on special teams, two areas that his size undeniably limits. That is something he is keenly aware of and working hard to fix.

“Pass blocking was a weakness at the beginning of the season, I’m sure scouts might have noticed that, but I’ve taken some good steps to improve,” he said.

“I worked with my position coach. He’s young, he’s new to the position, so I looked up drills to improve our pass blocking as a whole running back group, for everyone to benefit from. It was a huge priority of mine. If I want to be on the field for three downs, I’m going to have to pass block.”

Herzog’s next opportunity to prove his physical chops will come at the 2024 CFL Combine in Winnipeg, beginning March 19. Unlike his brother, who had to earn his way to the main event through a regional showcase, this invitation was direct and shows that teams are eager to see an apples-to-apples comparison versus larger backs.

A strong showing could help his stock but there are no guarantees. Canadian players with Herzog’s frame simply haven’t made it in the CFL, with the lone exception of Johnny Augustine. The Guelph product dominated the 2017 Combine but went undrafted due to exactly the same questions, returning to school and getting cut by two different teams before landing in Winnipeg. He’s since enjoyed five productive seasons as a backup with the Bombers.

Herzog hopes to carve out a similar success story for himself, hopefully without the same turmoil that both Augustine and his brother experienced. Though he has a year of potential U Sports eligibility in his back pocket if needed, he believes the time is now for him to make a CFL roster.

“Scouts are smart enough to look at a guy from Division II and say, ‘If this guy can play football, he can play football,’” Herzog insisted. “It doesn’t matter where you went or how big you are.”

The 2024 CFL Draft is scheduled for April 30 at 8:00 p.m. ET.

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.