Frédéric Plesius, Kirby Fabien and Carson Rockhill among prospects returning to CIS
The CFL's draft is unconventional from several perspectives, but one particularly notable one is that many of the players selected don't show up in this league for a few years, if they ever do, and that trend could be increasing. The draft typically is of NCAA players after their third year of university play (not counting their redshirt season) and CIS players after their fourth year, and some from both categories have gone on to the NFL that year, while most of the non-NFL-bound NCAA players selected have tended to finish their university eligibility before coming north. However, although Canadian university players have five years of eligibility, most of the CIS players drafted after their fourth year have at least gone to camp with the team that picked them. That's led to a sense that Canadian university products are ready to step in right away if needed, while NCAA players represent future prospects.
That may be changing, though. Top CIS picks like Laval linebacker Frédéric Plesius and Calgary offensive linemen Kirby Fabien and Carson Rockhill have all apparently elected to return to school for the coming season rather than attend camp with the teams that chose them (Hamilton, B.C. and Hamilton again, respectively). Several others may join them, including Laval defensive lineman Arnaud Gascon-Nadon (another Hamilton pick). Now, plenty of CFL-drafted guys have played their fifth year of CIS eligibility before; what makes this different is that the more typical path has been for a drafted player to attend CFL training camp, get cut then or early on in the year, return to his CIS team for a fifth year and then try making the CFL again the next year with the same team.
That aforementioned process generally works out well for both the CFL teams and the CIS ones. The CFL teams get to see their new draft picks in camp and work with them, keep any guys who are ready to go right away and send the rest back for maturation at the university level, while the CIS schools still get a lot of drafted players back for a final year, and they usually get them before their own training camps start. If enough CIS players follow Plesius and co. and elect not to even attend training camp in their draft year, that could provide a short-term boost for CIS from retaining these talented guys. However, it might also reduce the league's reputation as the place to go for readily-available Canadian talent.
What's the motivation here for Plesius, Fabien and Rockhill? Well, that's impossible to say for sure without being inside their heads, but there are a few things to consider. Their desire to help their college programs probably will be mentioned prominently, and that's not insignificant; they've clearly developed bonds with coaches and teammates there, and there's a sense of unfinished business for both Laval (which lost in last year's Vanier Cup) and Calgary (which lost in the national semifinals). I don't know the status of their educations, either, but an extra year of school could also help them finish an undergraduate degree or tack on a graduate program, both which could come in very handy for life after football. Of course, though, both of those benefits would still have been possible if they'd followed the old route of going to CFL camp, were cut there and went back to CIS. That offered benefits for players both ways; make the team and you get to compete at the professional level right away, but if it doesn't work out, you get to head back to school, grow as a player, pick up some more education and try again in a year.
There is one significant edge to avoiding camp altogether, though, and it may be particularly relevant for Plesius. That would be maintaining the ability to go to the NFL. He has both a NCAA and CIS background, and he already attended the Philadelphia Eagles' minicamp this offseason, so there's certainly interest in him from south of the border. His agent, Johnathan Hardaway, is also the guy who got Cory Greenwood and Matt O'Donnell from CIS to the NFL. If Plesius had attended the Tiger-Cats' camp, he would have had to sign a contract that would keep him north of the border for at least two seasons; by returning to Laval instead, he can test the NFL waters again next offseason. Some would say that the competition at the CFL level would better prepare him, and it might well, but the NFL has typically been much more interested in Canadian prospects' raw athletic ability than what they've done north of the border, so that might not matter all that much. He also has a very impressive coaching staff working with him at Laval, and that can't hurt either.
Is this a crisis for the CFL? At the moment, no; the CFL draft already requires balancing players' skills and the NFL's interest in them, and it also usually involves players who may not show up for a while, so this is just a new wrinkle along those lines. Also, for now, it only involves a few players, and there's a chance that some of these players would have been cut and sent back to the CIS ranks if they went to camp anyway. The potential implications could be concerning if this becomes a wider trend, though, as it could lead to strained relations between the CFL and CIS, CFL teams having to wait longer for more prospects and perhaps extra focus on the CIS level from the NFL. It's an issue that will be worth keeping an eye on as we approach teams' training camps.