2024 CFL Draft profiles: Baylor DT Justin Sambu hoping to follow the Lwal Uguak model for success

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

What do we do about the transfer? It’s a problem that’s become all too familiar for CFL scouts.

In the Wild West era of the transfer portal, college football players seem to bounce from school to school with reckless abandon. Inevitably, that means a couple of small school Canadian prospects take their shot at the big time every year and fall flat, raising questions about how they’ll make the bigger jump to the next level.

This year, the biggest question mark surrounds Baylor defensive tackle Justin Sambu. Back in 2022, the native of Cochrane, Alta. was a force to be reckoned with for the University of Maine, posting 5.5 sacks and 24 pressures for the FCS program. But after making the move to Waco, Tex. as a super senior, he completely disappeared and logged just 39 defensive snaps all season for the Big 12 school.

“I definitely could have grown into a captain for my last year if I would have stayed at Maine and been a trusted player for the team, but it was more about how do I better myself?” Sambu said in an interview with 3DownNation last month.

“I don’t regret it. I still think that having that stage and being there does wonders for you as a football player. You’re not just playing the games, you’re learning how you are supposed to prepare week in and week out for games at the highest level.”

The six-foot-two, 282-pound interior defender was still the highest-rated defensive line prospect on the league’s Winter Scouting Bureau rankings, but a difficult CFL Combine has only intensified the debate around his prospects. With just 11 reps on the bench and middling testing numbers after a year in a Power Five strength program, some talent evaluators have openly wondered how this could be the same player they once drooled over at Maine.

Fortunately for Sambu, there is a growing precedent for his situation in the form of three former first-round picks, albeit with varied degrees of success. Toronto’s Dejon Brissett was one of the first to face these questions and finally hit his stride in year three as a pro. Another former Black Bear, Deshawn Stevens, has yet to reach lofty expectations in Ottawa.

Most recently, Montreal took a shot on defensive end Lwal Uguak after a similarly disappointing season at TCU. They struck gold, as he was a major contributor to a Grey Cup victory as a rookie before earning a shot with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As a friend of Uguak’s since their days playing high school football in Alberta, that is the story that Sambu is hoping to emulate.

“Just looking at his career and how he took care of his path, getting the cards that are handed to you but making the most out of everything, that’s exactly what I want to do,” he said.

“That path that Lwal took, accepting that even though I’m not in the NFL right now, I’m gonna go to the CFL and ball out because I know I can and then see what happens after. Having that hard work mentality I think goes a very long way. Instead of just looking into the future and hoping for stuff, you’re better off being 10 toes where you are now and just working.”

The idea that his professional football journey might need a few extra steps isn’t daunting to Sambu, given that his path to collegiate football had more than its fair share of twists and turns. The son of a college basketball coach, his athletic prowess was originally used to help Team Alberta guard Ontario’s R.J. Barrett on the hard court. It wasn’t until he moved to Cochrane at 14 that he accepted his lack of height and moved on to football.

Despite developing into a top 10 recruit in the country, the offers he expected weren’t coming out of high school. The then-17-year-old prospect opted to kick the can down the road in hopes of something better and initially played for the CJFL’s Calgary Colts in 2016, though he saw action in just three games due to injury. It seemed that staying home at the University of Calgary would be his best option until he was approached by Larry Jusdanis of Football North, offering him a chance to move to Ontario for a year of prep school in 2017.

The decision to defer two years from his original recruiting class paid off and Sambu finally garnered NCAA attention, including from the University of Missouri. He planned to be SEC-bound the following summer until that offer was pulled to make room for an Alabama de-commit, leaving him without a home. Maine stepped in to fill the void and a recruiting pitch from his friend Ted Kubongo sealed the deal.

Though the Black Bears’ Canadian-heavy roster made the transition to college easier, meaningful minutes on defence wouldn’t come overnight. In 28 career games, he collected 59 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles, but didn’t become a significant force until 2022. Nevertheless, Sambu kept dreams of FBS stardom harboured at the back of his mind, seizing the opportunity in 2023 to make good on a dream first manifested when he was a senior at Cochrane High School.

That year, head coach Rob McNab took his squad on the road for an exhibition game in Groesbeck, Tex., stopping at McLane Stadium so that his young charges could watch the Baylor Bears play. It was that experience that Sambu credits with giving him the tools and desire to pull on that same jersey years later in a full circle moment.

“Being around other guys who I know have the same skill as me but didn’t really have the same path, it’s because they didn’t have the exposure so they had to stay in Canada,” he recalled. “That jump to the States, learning the game, learning the culture, learning how coaches react to different things, and seeing the best part of what football is in America was so very educating.”

“Coming from a place where the passion is mostly for hockey, seeing it makes you fall in love with it. That’s what essentially it did for us before that season. You see this culture of what a good football team can create and we brought it home to Cochrane.”

The Bears of 2023 were not nearly as dominant as the provincial championship-winning Cobras of 2015, and Sambu believes the team’s 3-9 record was what ultimately kept him from gaining a larger role. With jobs on the line, he says coaches were wary of trusting a new transfer who barely arrived in time for training camp and was learning the playbook on the fly.

That didn’t mean those coaches didn’t leave an impression on his game, however, particularly defensive line coach Dennis Johnson. The pass rush guru, who was recently hired by the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, refined the Canadian’s game far beyond what he was able to put on tape at Maine.

“The strength and speed is obviously genetic but the technique stuff, Coach Johnson helped me out so much,” Sambu said. “He was making me better every day on the smallest things, like where your thumb is when hitting somebody in the chest. If you hit like this and your other hand is like this, he’s gonna call you out. He was very technical and I loved that because that’s the type of player I want to be.”

At the end of the day, Sambu knows there will be some who doubt or write him off for his struggles at Baylor, confident in their knowledge that success in the CFL is much tougher than in the Big 12. He instead chooses to view the process as a positive and believes he’ll be much more prepared for rookie growing pains thanks to his experience.

“I wanted to play more but what mattered was going through the rough stuff, not getting the playing time, not feeling like I’m getting the absolute trust from my coaches, and learning how to do that,” he said. “I felt like that was just as important as being the guy, is learning how to be the guy.”

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.