2024 CFL Draft profiles: short stature won’t hold back Washington State OL Christy Nkanu from playing tackle

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Young Kwak

There is usually a simple eye test for spotting an offensive tackle: look for the tallest big man in the room.

Christy Nkanu doesn’t fit that mould. A few hairs short of six-foot-two, he’s the smallest offensive line prospect in this year’s CFL draft class. At 309 pounds, he’s thick in the middle with a noticeable gut, a far cry from the comparatively svelte bookends in a typical locker room. And while his 32 7/8 inch arms aren’t disqualifying by any measure, they are short of the mark for elite tackles by several inches.

Yet when it comes to players who might be able to help anchor a CFL team next season, the buck stops with this outlier. With other top tackle prospects expected to be tangled up in the NFL for a season or more, only Nkanu can come in and help right away. It has led more than a few scouts to re-evaluate their own biases, wondering how much length really matters for the position.

“It’s a fair question, but you can turn on the film and you can see that I can play tackle. I have the feet and the quickness to play tackle,” he told 3DownNation in an interview last month.

“I understand the angles really well and I’ve gone up against some really good pass rushers. My last year at Southern Utah, I had to practice against Francis Bemiy, who was a first-round pick by the B.C. Lions. At Washington State, I had to go up against (projected 2024 NFL Draft picks) Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson, those guys are going to be playing high-level football on Sundays every week. I feel comfortable playing tackle against the best.”

Nkanu proved as much at the CFL Combine, excelling when aligned on the outside. But unlike other tackle prospects, who are often so tall that teams question whether they can bend well enough to move inside, the Montreal native moves fluidly between all five spots on the offensive line. He’s started college games at four different positions and is a competent snapper, despite having never played centre in live action.

With that level of versatility, you might expect that Nkanu grew up with a football in his hand. In reality, he was a late adopter of the sports, taking to the pool as a hole set in water polo and spending a decade as a bruising hockey defenceman before ever considering the gridiron.

“I didn’t know anything about football. I just knew I was aggressive and I liked to block people, so I was forced to join the team by the coaches,” he chuckled. “In my first year, I made Team Quebec and then I made Team Canada. I remember talking to my parents and they were like, ‘Alright, you should probably go play football instead of hockey.'”

Three years later, Nkanu was a cornerstone for an undefeated provincial championship team at Dalbe Viau High School when he got an unexpected call. A friend already playing south of the border had recommended him to the coach of St. Paul High School in Los Angeles, who was looking for help in the trenches. He sent his tape on a Tuesday and was on a flight by Thursday, taking the first step in his US journey.

The jump to high school ball in one of America’s sporting hotbeds proved not to be too daunting for the young Canadian, who made an instant impact in his senior year.

“I fit right in. Going down to the US, the only adjustment was the speed of the game,” he recalled. “The guys were bigger, stronger but I was lucky that I was already strong enough to compete with them.”

Despite the smooth transition, hopes of a recruiting boom were hampered by paperwork issues. Deemed a late qualifier by the NCAA, most schools had full recruiting classes by the time Nkanu was able to sign. After conversations with a few schools, including Hawaii, he settled on Southern Utah, the reigning champions in a Big Sky conference that has a time-honoured tradition of producing elite CFL talent.

Unlike most programs, the Thunderbirds viewed Nkanu as a defensive prospect and he spent his first season on the team practicing at nose guard. That changed halfway through his redshirt freshman campaign when, after three player departures and a failed drug test by another big man, a desperate coaching staff asked the former two-way high school player to flip back to the offence.

Nkanu played 28 games up front over the next four seasons but struggled to grasp hold of a true starting job, bouncing from position to position. He stepped in once at left tackle, three times at right tackle, six times at right guard, and six times at left guard over the course of his tenure, filling gaps wherever needed. It was a string of seven consecutive starts to end the 2022 season, which included time at three different spots, that finally put him on the map.

“That offseason, I had just worked my butt off,” Nkanu explained. “I was in the coach’s office every day, just making sure I knew my playbook, my plays, and my techniques. I was just hungry. I wanted it really bad.”

People outside of Cedar City took notice as well and Nkanu took a shot at the transfer portal, not expecting much interest amidst the deluge of available prospects. Despite a zero-star rating from most outlets, he was shocked to receive more than 20 offers, including from the likes of BYU, California, Virginia, and Troy. All saw the value of a veteran addition capable of pinch-hitting up and down the lineup, but Washington State stood apart from the rest and landed his commitment.

Unfortunately, things never worked out as anticipated in Pullman. Viewed as a backup option, he appeared in just four games with the Cougars and totalled a measly 93 snaps in his final college season.

“Transferring for one year as an older guy, coaches already have the next guy up. I got a chance to compete, the guy in front of me was better. I can’t complain, right?” Nkanu shrugged, noting he doesn’t regret his decision to transfer. “I showed up every day, worked my butt off for my chance to get on the field, but it didn’t happen.”

Normally, failure to cement yourself as a season-long starter at any point in your college career would raise red flags among scouts, but CFL teams appear to view Nkanu as an exception. The data appears to support the theory that he’ll be a better pro than a prospect, with excellent grading from Pro Football Focus, especially as a pass blocker. In fact, on 722 career pass-blocking snaps, he has surrendered just 21 total pressures and allowed only one sack.

With that type of tape and five-position versatility, it will shock no one if Nkanu finds himself coming off the board late in the first round — breaking a couple of conventional rules along the way.

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.