The roster for the CFL's official evaluation camp came out Thursday, and one of the most interesting elements of it is the amount of CIS content. 54 of the 59 E-Camp invitees (91.5 per cent) are from CIS programs, which is a rise from the already-impressive 47 of 53 (88.7 per cent) we saw at the 2011 camp. That suggests that the quality of CIS football is continuing to rise, and that many of the players drafted in this year's non-import draft will be taken from the Canadian university ranks. Amongst the CIS players, though, one stands out even further, and that would be McMaster quarterback Kyle Quinlan. Despite some legal issues and a team-imposed suspension early in 2011, Quinlan dominated CIS play down the stretch, took the Marauders to an improbable Vanier Cup victory and got many Canadian football observers talking about how he might just be the first Canadian quarterback in a long while to really break through at the CFL level. How he does at the combine will have a lot to do with if he gets a real chance, so the media spotlight's going to be intensely focused on him. The presence of Quinlan and the other Canadian university prospects at E-Camp also says a lot of positive things about where CIS football's at right now.
For Quinlan, 2011 was a roller-coaster year of highs and lows. After an impressive 2010 season where he narrowly lost the OUA player of the year award to eventual Hec Crighton winner Brad Sinopoli (another Canadian quarterback who's still with the Calgary Stampeders at the moment), Quinlan was expected to be one of the top university quarterbacks in 2011. Things quickly went off the rails, though; he was arrested and charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer and one count of assault following a September bar fight, and that led to a team-imposed suspension.
Quinlan wound up missing three games, but then was allowed to return to the Marauders while his court issues were still pending. He put together an incredible stretch run after his Oct. 6 return, throwing for 1,911 yards and 19 touchdowns in six regular-season and playoff games (all of which McMaster won) to lead the Marauders all the way to the Vanier Cup. It was on that stage where he shone brightest, though, throwing for 482 yards (the second-highest total in Vanier history) and two touchdowns with a completion percentage of 65.4 per cent and running 14 times for 106 yards (7.6 yards per carry) to give the Marauders a shocking upset of the heavily-favoured Laval Rouge et Or. As Stephen Brunt wrote, that showing made Quinlan one of the biggest stories of the weekend, and perhaps shone an even greater spotlight on him going forward:
Then came that remarkable Vanier Cup on Friday night, when those Canadians who don't regularly follow CIS football were awakened to the skills of one Kyle Quinlan, who wears the same number 12 as the most famous McMaster Maroon of them all, Russ Jackson, and who is going to set a few to dreaming again of a Canadian starting quarterback in the Canadian Football League.
Can Quinlan carry that mantle? Well, it's not an easy one to bear, as cracking the CFL as a Canadian quarterback is incredibly difficult; the lack of a rule allowing quarterbacks' non-import status to count towards ratio numbers means that Canadians get zero advantage at quarterback (unlike every other CFL position), and they're somewhat discriminated against because the traditional CFL quarterback mould is an American who played in the NCAA; many don't want to think beyond that box. Plenty of star CIS quarterbacks haven't quite managed to crack the big leagues before: Western's Michael Faulds never got a CFL look, Queen's Danny Brannagan had one season with the Argonauts before getting cut, and while Sinopoli (perhaps the most promising prospect in recent years before Quinlan) remains on the Stampeders' roster, he's heading into camp as a third-stringer at best behind Drew Tate and Kevin Glenn.
However, Quinlan has similar physical tools to Sinopoli, he can succeed in both the passing and running games, and he's proven he can succeed under pressure. With a strong E-Camp performance, he could perhaps be drafted reasonably high and receive a real shot to play quarterback in the CFL. He's not the only one, either, as Hec Crighton winner Billy Greene of the UBC Thunderbirds (they of the retroactively-destroyed season) and Kyle Graves of the Acadia Axemen will also be at E-Camp, and both also have impressive CIS resumes. Given his year, though, much of the focus is going to be on Quinlan; it's up to him if that will help him or hurt him.
While whether Quinlan and the other CIS quarterbacks will receive a fair shot to play quarterback at the CFL level is an open debate, what's not in question is that the CIS influence on the CFL looks incredibly strong. The E-Camp roster isn't a definitive list of who will be drafted, as some NCAA prospects don't bother coming to it (instead keeping their focus on the NFL) and some promising players are overlooked (winding up instead at alternative tryouts like Duane Forde's parallel E-Camp), but it's a good indication of what players teams are looking at. This level of CIS content suggests that CFL teams are very focused on drawing talent from the ranks of the Canadian university game, and that in turn suggests that CIS football is continuing to improve. From this corner, having a strong Canadian-based league developing talent for the CFL is a great thing. Regardless of if CIS talents like Quinlan are able to crack the CFL quarterback ranks, there will undoubtedly be plenty of Canadian university players going on to the CFL this season, and that should be celebrated.