2024 CFL Draft profiles: Buffalo OL Gabe Wallace bringing neck roll mentality back to the pros

Photo courtesy: Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com

The simple horseshoe of foam has nearly gone the way of the Dodo bird and the flip phone, but Gabe Wallace is making the neck roll sexy again — at least where the CFL Draft is concerned.

For as long as he’s been strapping on shoulder pads, the University at Buffalo’s hulking offensive lineman has enjoyed the comfort of a little extra bulk beneath his nameplate. Coming from a hockey background, that bulbous protrusion from a bygone era was one of the first things that drew him to the sport.

“We just weren’t a football household, so I’d watch YouTube highlights. The Fridge, he had a neck roll. Mike Alstott, he had the neck roll. The first time I ever played Madden, I made the big neck roll,” Wallace told 3DownNation in an interview earlier this offseason. “All my friends thought it just looked terrible and I always really liked it.”

Despite its diminishing usage, that humble hump on the back of the neck comes with certain expectations. For as long as it’s been around, the neck roll has marked a certain type of athlete — gritty, tough, the type of player that physically imposes himself on opponents.

That’s exactly what has CFL scouts excited about the sixth-ranked prospect in this year’s class. Standing at six-foot-six and 346 pounds with tree trunk limbs, Wallace looks like an AI-generated image of a Canadian offensive lineman. Long slicked-back hair, a scruffy beard and a gap-toothed grin belie a physical mauler who relishes the nastiest parts of the sport.

“I love getting dirty,” he chucked. “My favourite thing is those short-yardage plays where you need half a yard and you just dive. That’s where the neck roll comes in.”

Wallace is an unconventional throwback, the type of man who spends his free time listening to classical music — the Czech composer Dvorak is a personal favourite — and who models his game as much after Kevin Gogan from the Great Wall of Dallas as he does any modern offensive lineman. It took that type of unique mindset and approach, coupled with a giant’s physique, to reach the top levels of college football from a tiny town in B.C.’s interior.

Born in Nelson, Wallace spent a chunk of his formative years in New Zealand playing schoolyard rugby before his family returned to Canada when he was 10 years old, settling in Salmon Arm. There he was nothing more than a sub-par house league hockey player until a shattered popcorn bowl during a family movie night severed the tendon at the top of his foot. A pair of surgeries and an ensuing staph infection left him immobile for six months but the subsequent weight gain was enough to lead a friend to invite him out to football.

It was an instant fit and the massive youngster was immediately made to be an offensive lineman, though he would end up catching a few passes over the years as an eligible tight end in nine-man football. That was all the community of less than 18,000 could field at the time, although they punched far above their weight class. In Grade 10, Wallace helped the team capture a provincial title, though at the time the sport was not even his primary focus.

That was the game he had picked up from the Kiwis, where the behemoth prop was beginning to make a name for himself, even though his home province didn’t seem to appreciate it. Told not to bother making the trek to try out for Team B.C. rugby, he was eagerly welcomed by Team Alberta. All through the summer, his mother would make the eight-hour drive to Red Deer every weekend and the pair would camp out in the parking lot of the clubhouse for three days at a time.

Though he admits that the lasting effects of the game have now waned, Wallace doesn’t believe he would have enjoyed the college career he did if not for football’s English predecessor.

“Coming in my freshman year, everybody said the cardio was gonna kill me. I wasn’t fast but I could just keep going,” he recalled. “I came in at 320 and I think I did a lot better than a couple of guys that weighed a lot less than that.”

Rugby’s most immediate benefit was that it helped him catch the eye of a recruiter from St. Andrew’s College while at an Alberta provincial tournament. The elite boarding school in Aurora, Ont. would become Wallace’s home for the final two years of high school and he thrived as a two-sport athlete, though football increasingly offered him more opportunities moving forward.

As a senior, he landed an offer from Rice University but saw it get pulled out from under him when the coaching staff was fired. That could have been the end of his NCAA aspirations but his coach at St. Andrew’s called in a favour with a recruiter from Buffalo, scheduling a private workout. He refused to fall through the cracks a second time and accepted an offer virtually on the spot.

Heading south was a daunting new challenge but Wallace was thankful to have a mentor in the process. Current Edmonton Elks right guard Tomas Jack-Kurdyla, who hails from Montreal, took him under his wing during the official visit and taught him the ropes for two seasons, inducting him into the Bulls’ proud tradition of Canadian talent.

“I hope somebody looks at me that way at some point, but just seeing that other Canadians had done it helped me so much,” Wallace said. “I remember the amount of times that people told me that Canadians don’t go D1, especially from Salmon Arm. Seeing that and knowing that it is possible, that Tomas played a significant amount of time, he helped me unimaginably.”

In the years since, a strong contingent of players from north of the border has remained as much Buffalo’s calling card as their punishing running game. The school has begun hosting recruiting camps just for Canadian hopefuls and has welcomed several U Sports prospects to attend their annual NFL pro day. That trend has warmed the heart of their most prominent Canuck.

“I know tons of great players in U Sports and if not for one connection that maybe my coach didn’t have, I would have been in U Sports, for sure,” Wallace remarked. “There are a lot of great players that never got that exposure or maybe didn’t have the knowledge on how to get recruited.”

Wallace got his lucky break but success in the NCAA did not come easily. Despite his frame and superior cardio, his first three seasons as a Bull were lacklustre at best and mostly involved action in jumbo packages or on special teams. He blames his own lack of preparedness for those struggles and nearly transferred north to St. FX early on, but everything changed in 2021 with the hiring of head coach Maurice Linguist and offensive line coach Matt Stansfield.

Since then, the pride of Shuswap Country has made 37 straight starts, earning back-to-back All-MAC third-team selections and allowing just four sacks on 1,419 career pass-blocking snaps. The majority of that work has come at left guard, the spot he feels the most comfortable, but he has also proven to be a capable contributor at either tackle spot. He even saw action at fullback this past season, though the ball sadly never came his way.

While the growing trend has been for players of his calibre to transfer out of mid-major schools like Buffalo for their final few seasons, Wallace elected to stay put after toying with the portal in 2021. For him, that decision came down to a debt he owed his coaches and teammates.

“Coach Linguist and Coach Stansfield really gave me an opportunity to almost reinvent myself when they came in,” he explained. “It was loyalty to them and the opportunities they had created for me, the trust they put in me with leaning on me to help lead the o-line and the team in general.”

Now, inspired by the rise of another Canadian success story from the MAC in Patriots draft pick Sidy Sow, Wallace has his sights set on the NFL. He’s already performed for scouts at the College Gridiron Showcase and Tropical Bowl all-star games, with the Buffalo pro day next up on Thursday, March 14.

While an opportunity as an NFL draft pick or UDFA is the goal, the projected CFL first-round selection isn’t taking the chance to play at home for granted. As his football talent blossomed, the once hockey-centric Wallace household became B.C. Lions fans and he fondly recalls betting twoonies with his grandfather on games.

His favourite players growing up were running back Andrew Harris and linebacker Adam Bighill, the latter of whom made a lasting impression when he showed up for a surprise visit in Salmon Arm during a youth practice. Wallace still cherishes the picture he took that day, awkwardly dwarfing the future Hall of Fame defender.

Mere months away from a chance to suit up against or alongside his childhood idol, he makes no attempt to downplay how significant the moment would be.

“I would cry tears of joy. It would mean the world to me,” Wallace said. “I’d be terrified but it would be insane. I used to go to sleep at night wishing I could wake up shorter, so I could play linebacker. He was amazing. I remember watching him and just being like, ‘How can someone be that dominant?'”

CFL teams hope that smiling kid in a bucket hat soon finds out firsthand, channelling the powers of the neck roll into a career worthy of standing alongside Bighill for more than just a photo.

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.