2024 CFL Draft profiles: walk-on wonder Luke Brubacher looks to continue Laurier DE legacy

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/Laurier Athletics

For most people, a spur-of-the-moment decision will never amount to anything more than a splurge purchase or an ill-advised hairstyle. Acts of spontaneity come and go with few long-term consequences, with little being ventured and nothing being gained.

Luke Brubacher thought much the same when he let his own intrusive thoughts win and crafted a simple email to Wilfrid Laurier head coach Michael Faulds three years ago, asking for a spot on the football team. The second-year kinesiology student had no grandiose ideas of stardom or dreams of a professional career at the time, he simply thought it would be a fun thing to try.

Even now as he sits on the precipice of the CFL Draft, he can’t quite put his finger on what possessed him to be so bold.

“I’ve been asked lots of times before and to be honest, I never really have a great answer,” Brubacher admitted in an interview with 3DownNation. “It truly was just one day I woke up and was like, ‘I think I want to try to play football.'”

Many a high school has-been have carried the unearned confidence that they could excel at the collegiate level, but it was Brubacher’s complete lack of experience that made his request so audacious. Growing up in the tiny town of Listowel, Ont. — population 7,530 — the nearest amateur football team was a 50-minute drive away and his parents never had the time to take him. At 20 years old, he had never played a single snap on the gridiron.

Naturally, his first email earned nothing except polite platitudes from the busy Golden Hawks staff. It wasn’t until Brubacher followed up a couple of months later, this time with a list of his measurables and a workout video, that Faulds realized that he might have a diamond in the rough walking around his own campus.

“We’ve talked about it a few times since then and he’s admitted to me that the first time he read it, he was like, ‘What’s this guy talking about? He’s never played football before and he wants to just come in to play at the OUA level?'” Brubacher laughed. “He said after he saw the videos, he realized, ‘Oh, I gotta give the guy a shot at least’ and I’m glad he did.”

It didn’t take very long at all for that decision to look like a stroke of genius. After just a few short weeks of training camp in 2021 — the first time he’d ever put on a helmet — the true rookie was already making an impact on gameday. He recorded his first sack in his first career game against York and never looked back.

In the three years since, Brubacher has established himself as one of the nation’s best defensive ends. He has compiled 61 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and 12 sacks in 27 career games. After earning second-team OUA all-star honours with a six-sack campaign in 2023, he is expected to be selected in the early rounds of the CFL Draft.

That was never the goal when he began his unlikely journey, however. Despite the confidence that his approach suggests, there was never any expectation that he would make the gameday roster, let alone start.

“I never even expected to get on the field. My only goal was to earn the respect of all my teammates and my coaches because I knew as a walk-on, that’s what you had to do,” Brubacher insisted. “That was my only mindset throughout my whole university career, to be a guy in the locker room that everyone sort of respected and looked up to. I was never really focused on the stats or any of that, I just wanted to help my team win.”

He was able to do much more than just that at Laurier, thanks in part to his unique athleticism. The six-foot-five, 246-pound pass rusher ripped up the testing at the CFL Combine in Winnipeg, leaping a ridiculous 38 inches in the vertical jump to kick off the festivities. That would have been tied for third at his position at the 2024 NFL Combine, while his 10-foot, six-inch broad jump would have landed sixth. Add in a 4.69-second forty-yard dash and a 7.06-second three-cone, you get a physical profile almost unheard of north of the border.

While it generated plenty of media attention, none of those numbers came as a surprise to CFL scouts. Brubacher tested almost identically at the 2023 East-West Bowl a year ago, a performance that he says caught him off guard after not doing any specific training for those events. While he knew his work in the gym, which began seriously amidst the COVID pandemic, had generated results, he didn’t fully appreciate just how unique he had become.

Growing up, there was little indication that he would ever excel at any sport. Brubacher was a chunky kid — “super overweight” by his own admission — and was less than stellar in youth hockey or soccer. Neither of his parents were particularly athletically inclined either and both stood at a completely average height.

There was no explanation for the growth spurt he hit in high school, which happened at the same time he picked up a new hobby: boxing. The combat sport leaned him out quickly and he began to show real promise for the first time, going undefeated as an amateur. The national team program in Montreal was beginning to show interest before the pandemic struck and derailed talks, but that missed opportunity set the stage for all his success at Laurier.

“Boxing was the biggest reason why I came into football and excelled pretty quickly,” Brubacher explained. “It’s all coordination between your hands and your feet so when it came to pass rushing, I felt like it translated right away. It just came pretty naturally to me.”

Now, he has the chance to join a long line of Golden Hawks who have achieved CFL success, particularly along the defensive line. Notable Canadian starters Kwaku Boateng and Robbie Smith both came through the program in the last decade, leaving a standard that Brubacher had to live up to despite his lack of previous football knowledge.

“I knew going in there that I had some pretty big shoes to fill,” he recalled. “I remember one of our first meetings after Coach had announced me as the starter, he explained how the last three guys at that rush end position all played in the CFL, two of them being Robbie and Kwaku. That definitely lit a fire under my butt to continue that legacy.”

More than just numbers on the wall, both of those Laurier icons have played a role in his own journey. Boateng served as the team’s defensive line coach in 2023, unlocking Brubacher’s best season to date, while Smith has helped with his pre-draft training at the gym where he works out alongside fellow top prospects Tyson Hergott of Waterloo and Kail Dava of Tennessee Tech.

“Being able to pick their brains and learn from them, being able to play the same position at the same school after them has just been a super cool opportunity, to be honest,” he said. “I’m super grateful for it.”

While Boateng and Smith turned out to be ratio-breaking starters, some feel that Brubacher could be the best of the trio. Though his game remains raw, there is plenty of untapped potential left in a prospect who has played less football than most have before the end of high school.

He’s already made tremendous strides without the benefit of perfect health, battling shoulder problems in each of the last two seasons. Surgery in December has cleared up those issues and he is nearly back at 100 percent for the first time since his freshman year. Should his development curve continue in the CFL, anything is possible thanks to his athletic gifts, including a shot at the NFL somewhere down the line.

“To be honest, I feel like I’m still nowhere near where I can get to yet,” Brubacher stressed. “I can still get more confident out there, the game will slow down more, and I’ll be able to play even more to my physical capabilities than I do right now. I can pretty confidently say I think I have the highest ceiling of any guy in this draft.”

The 2024 CFL Draft is slated for Tuesday, April 30 at 8:00 p.m. EDT.

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.