It's a big weekend for Canadian football talent. The CFL's official E-Camp for prospects has already begun, and it will kick into high gear Saturday with plenty of physical tests for 59 of the top prospects in this year's CFL draft. However, in addition to the official E-Camp, this weekend also features Friday's National Invitational Combine, a camp put on by TSN analyst Duane Forde and Pro Combine Training's Mike Gough. The NIC may not receive as much media attention as the official E-Camp, but it's scouted by every team and it can be just as important, as it gives prospects like Saxon Lindsey who didn't earn official E-Camp invites a chance to show their stuff. The NIC's in its third year, and it's become an important event on the CFL calendar, one that's resulted in several players receiving CFL shots who might never have otherwise (including the Argonauts' Djems Kouame, drafted 18th overall last year after a great NIC performance). I spoke to Forde about the event and the overall state of Canadian talent Thursday, and thought he had some very interesting things to say.
Forde said his camp's success (it's expanded to about 140 invitees this year from 80-90 in its first year, and is a destination for representatives of every CFL franchise) reflects that Canadian talent is improving both at the highest levels and in its depth.
"Big picture, the talent level and the depth of the talent improve nationally every decade," he said.
Forde's camp has its own strict standards, which he defines as "guys who are reasonable prospects who haven't been invited to E-Camp." He thinks the improving quality of CIS play in particular has meant that there are plenty of talented players who could theoretically contribute to CFL teams, but aren't selected for the CFL's limited-size E-Camp thanks to playing on lower-profile teams, battling through injuries or other issues. That's where the NIC comes in.
"There are a lot of guys who wouldn't have the opportunity to be seen," he said. "The league is always going to invite the highest-profile guys. [The NIC] provides an opportunity for more guys to be evaluated at a more detailed level."
Other combines have tried and failed to do that in the past, though. Forde said one thing that's helped the NIC is that they work closely with teams to see what kind of players they'd like an extra look at. They also use the knowledge of Forde and Gough to try and set up a realistic roster, and conduct discussions with college coaches to try and figure out who might be a legitimate CFL prospect.
"It's our knowledge, college coaches and CFL teams," Forde said. "There's good input consistently from teams."
Another element that's helped them succeed where others have failed is holding the event in the same location as E-Camp, on the same weekend, and just a day earlier. Forde said it would be nice to have an entirely separate event, but pairing the two like this makes it much easier to attract scouts.
"Realistically, the teams have limited resources," he said. "By doing it just a day earlier, it gives you a chance to draw scouting staff."
CFL teams are taking the NIC quite seriously, too, and Forde says that's a reflection of the added importance of Canadian scouting at the moment. Teams are finding more quality non-import players than ever, and they're putting extra focus on plucking guys who can not just help their import ratio, but can also make key on-field contributions; that's why many teams have someone officially in charge of Canadian scouting and the draft these days. With that imperative to find top Canadians and the realization that there may be more potentially solid players than just the ones at E-Camp, teams are willing to embrace alternative scouting venues like the NIC.
"Scouting has become far more in-depth than it used to be," Forde said. "The same scouting presence that exists at E-Camp exists at ours."
Something else that's helped is teams' willingness to consider playing Canadians at non-traditional positions. Non-import players like Montreal middle linebacker Shea Emry and running backs Jon Cornish, Andrew Harris and Andre Durie have demonstrated that a passport doesn't necessarily disqualify you from key positions, and Forde said that's helped contribute to a mindset shift amongst CFL front offices.
"You're seeing a little more open-mindedness," he said. "You have to get your seven best Canadians onto the field regardless of what position they play."
Of course, for some of those players, the passport is mostly a bonus. As Forde pointed out, Cornish's accomplishments at the University of Kansas likely would have given him a CFL shot even if he wasn't Canadian.
"When you've got a running back like Jon Cornish, his resume speaks for itself," Forde said.
Most Canadian players don't come in from the NCAA ranks, instead taking the CIS route, but Forde said the level of play in Canadian university football has itself dramatically risen over the years.
"The CIS is the primary source of Canadian talent," Forde said. "You're seeing guys who are better-coached, better-prepared. That's a direct credit to Canadian university football. It's on the rise."
That doesn't all directly benefit the CFL, though. As we've seen in recent years, some top CIS talents like Cory Greenwood, Vaughn Martin, Joel Reinders and Matt O'Donnell have wound up taking their game directly to the NFL without a stop in Canadian pro football first. Forde said that's just further proof where Canadian football talent's at, though, and that's why some of the top prospects in this year's draft aren't at either camp this weekend, instead focusing on impressing NFL teams.
"Many guys do have legitimate NFL opportunities," Forde said. "The NFL takes these guys very seriously."
One position where Canadian talent has had difficulty making inroads in either league is at quarterback, but Forde said he thinks that will change over time, even if the CFL doesn't change its American-favouring rule.
"Sometimes things just evolve naturally," he said. "I think it's something we're naturally going to see."
Forde pointed to Calgary's 2011 draft selection of former Ottawa Gee-Gees quarterback Brad Sinopoli as proof that some CIS quarterbacks are getting to a level where they'll receive some serious consideration from the CFL regardless of their passport.
"Brad Sinopoli didn't need any sort of ratio," he said.
Forde said something that would significantly help is if more teams invite underclassmen CIS quarterbacks to training camp, though, as Hamilton's done in the past with Kyle Quinlan (one of the key presences at this weekend's E-Camp).
"If you're going to mandate something, mandate that," he said.
Forde said he thinks that lack of opportunity to gain exposure at the CFL level and then take it back to the CIS level hurt Danny Brannagan's chances of sticking in the pros.
"There was really no opportunity in a game situation for him to take what he'd learned and develop," Forde said.
For Quinlan and the rest of the attendees at E-Camp and the NIC, there will be a lot of focus on how they do in drills this weekend, but Forde said it's also important for scouts to view film of how they performed in the university ranks.
"It's a mix of the two," he said. "You want to look at game film to see how they perform. The weight is certainly on game film."
Forde said CIS statistics and drill results can sometimes illuminate what players can do with the ball, but film can help illustrate how they contribute when it's not in their hands.
"You want to watch the film to see what he's doing when he's not getting the ball," Forde said.
Forde said there are also always plenty of players who dazzle at the combine, but can't perform in games.
"You've got the running joke about guys who look like Tarzan and play like Jane," he said. "They look like superheroes at the combine, but can't play."
Despite all that, the drills that go on at E-Camp and the NIC are still crucial, as they can reveal a lot about how players are likely to do against the consistently better physical competition that exists at the CFL level. There's some pretty impressive physical talent at these combines, too, as evident from results like the ones Acadia receiver Taylor Renaud put up at the NIC Friday (as relayed by former Edmonton Eskimo and current Axemen strength coach Elliott Richardson). Forde said top physical results are to be expected, given the raw skill of many Canadian football players these days.
"You're going to see some real high-end athletes," he said.
One player Forde expects to shine at E-Camp is Laurier receiver Shamawd Chambers, a top CIS player who also starred on Canada's international team this summer and was ranked fourth in the latest CFL Scouting Bureau update in January.
"Shamawd Chambers is a tremendously explosive guy," Forde said.
Another top prospect to watch is Laval linebacker Frédéric Plesius, ranked sixth on the Scouting Bureau's January list.
"The guy is just chiseled, but he's one of the most explosive players in this entire draft class," Forde said.
There will be plenty of Canadian football talent on display this weekend, and thanks to Forde and Gough, CFL teams will have a chance to look at much more than just the 59 prospects at the official E-Camp. The NIC's success really illustrates the rising depth of Canadian talent, and that bodes tremendously well for the future of Canadian football.