2024 CFL Draft profiles: UConn REC Kevens Clercius’ desire for ‘dirty work’ sets him apart

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Michael Wyke

When it comes to the top receiver heading into the 2024 CFL Draft, it seems that everything will come down to taste.

For some, six-foot-six Nick Mardner out of Auburn University is too decadent to resist; a unique size mismatch with a thousand-yard pedigree. If a classic bite is more your style, Laval’s Kevin Mital could lay claim to the title of best pass catcher in U Sports history and has the Hec Crighton Trophy to prove it.

By comparison, the University of Connecticut product Kevens Clercius feels like a tried and true offering of vanilla. He lacks the college production of his contemporaries but has quietly crept up boards, firmly establishing himself in the top three conversation. His particular flavour isn’t high-concept or fine dining but has made scouts across the league drool nonetheless.

“Receivers like to look good, stay fresh and clean. There are not a lot of people who are willing to do the dirty work,” Clercius told 3DownNation in an interview earlier this offseason.

“At UConn, every time they had a special type of play where you had to down-block the linebacker, obviously they would put me in because I like to be physical. Blocking is something that I love to do because nobody wants to do it. Somebody’s got to do it, so I’ll do it. I don’t mind.”

At six-foot-two and a robust 217 pounds, no other receiving prospect provides the stock blocking prowess or special teams upside that Clercius possesses. It’s the type of skillset that helps a CFL rookie have a meaningful impact long before he dominates the boxscore, making teams think long and hard about whether the bruising target might go in the first round later this month.

It’s a grinder mentality which the receiver comes by honestly. Born in Montreal-Nord, one of the city’s most economically disadvantaged areas, to Haitian immigrants, life was not always easy growing up. Though he excelled at multiple sports and began dedicating himself to football by his mid-teens, resources were scarce and opportunities limited at a Division III high school program like the one at École secondaire Henri-Bourassa.

On top of the usual challenges, he quietly bore the brunt of tragedy at the start of his football career. At the age of 14, his mother, Iclea, passed away after a sudden illness. One day, it seemed she just had a cold. Then one night Clercius was told to stay over at his aunt’s house, only to be told the next morning that his mom was gone.

While other members of his family know the details of her passing, the promising young athlete chose never to learn the nature of his mother’s diagnosis. He dealt with the profound loss privately, unwilling to be controlled by fear or pity.

“I never really tried to know what happened. I just wanted to keep my mind at peace. I didn’t want to be scared of it. I didn’t want to think, ‘Oh no, this can happen to me,'” he explained.

“When that happened, I didn’t tell nobody. Some of my friends knew it, but my coaches and my teachers, nobody knew it because I’m not really the type of person who likes to talk about my personal stuff.”

Fuelled by the loss, Clercius endeavoured to make his mother proud and make something of himself in sport. Iclea had always made school an emphasis in the household and earning the shot at a college scholarship was his promise to her.

Somewhat unusually, his big break came in the summer of 2018 after a season at College Montmorency when he was named to the roster of Team Canada for the IFAF World Junior Championships. His selection was something of an oddity as Clercius had never previously suited up for the provincial Team Quebec, as few from Montreal-Nord can due to the inherent expenses. Nevertheless, he seized the opportunity and helped the national team to a gold medal victory over Team Mexico. The hardware still hangs on his wall to this day.

Shortly after, Clercius attended a recruiting camp in Connecticut and landed his only NCAA offer. A year later, he was committed and bound for campus in Storrs, but there was a slight problem: the francophone recruit spoke almost no English.

“I knew how to say ‘hi’, ‘can I go to the bathroom,’ and stuff like that. But I promise you, if people were to ask me a question and just started talking, I would just shake my head,” he admitted. “I didn’t know what they were saying.”

The Huskies enrolled the French-speaking freshman in an intensive English course ahead of the start of the season, which was able to get him up to speed fast enough to survive in an academic setting. He redshirted during his first year in 2019 while he acclimatized to the language barrier, but insists that the process was not as difficult as it might sound.

Those around the program were sympathetic to his plight and UConn boasted five other Canadians on the roster at the time, including a pair of fellow Quebecers in linebacker Terrence Ganyi and quarterback Jack Zergiotis who he could lean on.

“It was way easier because I was more comfortable talking to them,” he recalled. “People say there are no stupid questions but if I had a question about something, they wouldn’t laugh about it. Everybody comes from different places where all the terms and things are different but with them, I wouldn’t have to be shy. They knew where I was coming from.”

After sitting out his first season and losing a second to the COVID-19 pandemic, Clercius first broke onto the field in 2021. He caught 20 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns that year, following it up with a 24-catch, 288-yard campaign in 2022 that featured just one trip to the endzone. While those numbers hardly jumped off the stat sheet, it seemed as if the Canadian was in a position to grow into a bigger role heading into 2023.

That simply didn’t happen, as Clercius recorded only five receptions in his final year for 56 yards and a touchdown. That disappointing statistical finish is the prospect’s biggest red flag as he makes his way to the next level, an anomaly he chalks up to roster changes and diminished opportunities.

“Every year, coaches try to do something different. They brought people in from the transfer portal so there was more competition and I don’t know if I was really part of the team’s plans,” he remarked.

“I could compete with them but sometimes coaches want to see certain people at those positions. What you’ve got to do is just keep grinding in practice and hope you’re gonna get on the field.”

The down year wasn’t a net loss, however, as Clercius saw 112 snaps on special teams, something he’d seldom done previously. The quantity and quality of that tape has endeared him to CFL evaluators almost as much as his big frame or the 4.59 speed he showed off at the recent CFL Combine.

With one year of NCAA eligibility remaining, Clercius could have returned to UConn or entered the transfer portal in the hopes of pumping up his offensive stats. Instead, he elected to head to the pros early, believing that bigger and better things await him back home in Canada.

“At a certain point, it was just time for me to start my life and start doing what I want to do, which is being a professional footballer,” he said. “I felt like it would be in my best interest to just declare for the draft.”

Despite those professional aspirations, the 24-year-old only felt comfortable making his decision because he already had a sociology degree in hand. His graduation last May fulfilled the promise he made to his late mother, making him the first person in his family to earn a college degree and giving him another tool to help make her and his community proud.

“I didn’t want to be another statistic back home, where a lot of people don’t have degrees,” Clercius said. “Coming from a rougher neighbourhood, I would like to inspire people that just because you’re from a certain type of place, it doesn’t mean you can’t do the things you want in life.”

He one day hopes to work as a behavioural interventionist with vulnerable youth, doing the hard work that society desperately needs off the field. Until then, he’s happy to do the same on it for whatever team drafts him, getting his nose as dirty as possible in pursuit of a pro career.

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.