The NFL draft is coming up Thursday, and there are several intriguing Canadian connections to it. Plenty of Canadian athletes, including 2011 CFL draft pick Philip Blake, the CFL's current top-ranked prospect in Boise State defensive end Tyrone Crawford, and perhaps other elite prospects like Ben Heenan and Shamawd Chambers, could all be taken in the mid-to-late rounds. One of the most interesting stories isn't about a Canadian, though, but rather an American who wound up playing the last few years of his college football career north of the border, Regina Rams' defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. Hicks has been drawing plenty of attention lately, especially since his star turn at the East-West Shrine Game in January, and he's even been cited as a guy the television broadcasters are preparing material on for Thursday's draft. Yahoo! NFL writer Jason Cole also has some glowing praise for Hicks in this Y! Sports preview of draft sleepers:
"He's a guy who's going to be picked up at defensive tackle by somebody and fit into either a 3-4 system or into a 4-3 system," Cole said. "He's a very active guy; that guy right off the bat is somebody that you're going to want to look at." It's tough to argue with that; Hicks has been very impressive during his CIS career and was particularly dominant in 2011, picking up 6.5 sacks and 35.5 tackles (the most for any Canada West defensive lineman) in eight regular-season games and earning a first-team All-Canadian nod, and the physical potential he showed off at the NFL combine should further boost his stock. However, there is one statement of Cole's to quibble with: the comment that "This is a guy who is coming literally out of nowhere, because you've never heard of players coming from the Canadian college ranks." Actually, there are lots of players who have come to the NFL out of the Canadian college ranks, including some recent ones, and Hicks may be just one of several to take that path this year.
NFL Canada has put together a list of the Canadians taken in the NFL draft over the last 30 years, and while many of them came through U.S. programs (including Tony Mandarich at Michigan State, O.J. Atogwe at Stanford, Tim Biakabutuka at Michigan and Chris Schultz at Arizona, as well as last year's first-round pick, Danny Watkins from Baylor), there have also been several from the CIS ranks. One of the most well-known is offensive lineman Mike Schad from Queen's University, who became the first (and thus far, the only) CIS player picked in the first round back in 1986, but another notable name on that list is Vaughn Martin, the defensive lineman from the former University of Western Ontario (now Western University) who was taken by San Diego in the fourth round of the 2009 draft and remains on their roster at the moment. Some of the most notable names to join the NFL from the CIS ranks weren't drafted at all, though.
The key guy here would be Chicago Bears' defensive end Israel Idonije, who the Cleveland Browns picked up as an undrafted free agent back in 2003 following his career with the University of Manitoba Bisons. Idonije was traded to the Bears the next season and has been a solid pass-rushing threat and special-teams performer since then. He's not the only CIS guy to do well in the NFL as an undrafted free agent, though; others currently active include veteran Seattle punter Jon Ryan (who also played at Regina), Kansas City linebacker Cory Greenwood (from the Concordia Stingers), New York Giants' offensive tackle Joel Reinders (who played at Waterloo) and Cincinnati offensive tackle Matt O'Donnell (O'Donnell, the guy of the recent controversies and contract extensions, played for Queen's).
It's understandable that those guys wouldn't necessarily come to mind for Cole at first. Most of them aren't all that high-profile, and they tend to get far more coverage in Canada than they do in the States. Moreover, Cole's general point that there aren't a huge number of NFL players (relative to the total numbers in the NFL) who come from the CIS level is fair. It's just worth pointing out that while the CIS route to the NFL may be somewhat obscure, it isn't entirely unprecedented, and other CIS players like Heenan and Chambers might even be selected this year in the draft or signed as undrafted free agents.
Hicks' story is still a fantastic one, though, and the circuitous path he's taken to the NFL is well worth discussing. Hicks was originally a highly-touted recruit of the LSU Tigers, but he got caught up in a recruiting scandal and wound up playing at Sacramento City College before heading north to Regina in 2010. As mentioned before, it may be uncommon, but it isn't unprecedented for CIS players to make the jump to the NFL, though. What's particularly unique about Hicks' story is that he's one of the very few Americans to come play CIS football, and he's shown potential both with his on-field play and his physical abilities. If he's able to wind up doing well in this year's draft, that could motivate other Americans to try Canadian college football. After all, succeeding in CIS and making it to the NFL isn't quite as out of nowhere as it may seem.