Niagara Academy instills four-down football program to help kids land NCAA scholarships

Not all of the football played in Canada is "Canadian", especially at the high school level. B.C. has used the U.S. National Federation of High School Associations' four-down rules for some time, and now a new Ontario program is following suit with an even more ambitious plan; pull together elite Canadian football talent and play a 10-game schedule against U.S. schools using American rules. As Michael Woods of The Toronto Star writes, the idea is to try and help top Canadian prospects to land NCAA scholarships:

The program will provide an education suited to students applying for NCAA scholarships and will work around practice and travel schedules. The team plans to play a 10-game schedule starting in August, all against U.S. schools, playing with American football rules.

Coaching the team will be Geoff McArthur, a former All-American who is the University of California Golden Bears' all-time leading receiver and was a favourite target of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, now with the NFL's Green Bay Packers. McArthur, 29, was an NFL prospect before a leg injury ended his career.

In January, he made the move to the Niagara region from Los Angeles.

"It's going to help people get noticed and bridge that gap between Canada and America, because I truly believe that there's a lot of talent out here," he said.

McArthur's certainly a big name from a playing perspective, and his involvement with the program will certainly help pull in some top talent. So will Niagara Academy's reputation, as the school has a long-running tennis academy along the same lines; students aged 8 to 19 do five and a half hours of class, three hours of tennis and one hour of fitness per day, and school founder Lezlie Murch told Woods that 100 per cent of their graduates have received scholarships to NCAA schools. Moreover, the idea of a top-tier team of Canadian kids playing against American high schools in order to try and improve their southern exposure and receive NCAA scholarships will certainly be appealing to many athletes and their families, so it's not hard to see plenty of talented kids' families paying $14,000 a year ($20,000-plus if you include billeting with a host family for out-of-town students) to get involved in this program. The question is how well it will work, and if it's a good thing for the state of Canadian football as a whole.

On that first front, a lot depends on how well the idea's executed. The state of Canadian talent's perhaps higher than it's ever been, and many have attributed that to improved coaching at all levels. There certainly is a solid Canadian talent base out there, and if Niagara can pull in a decent percentage of that, that will help. Coaching at the high school level itself is crucial to players' development, though, and it remains to be seen how well McArthur will do there. Moreover, while a football-focused schedule and experience playing by American rules could help Canadians land NCAA scholarships, it's not like they haven't been able to before now. As I wrote in 2010, there are already plenty of Canadians heading south of the border for scholarships big-time college football programs (including several from Harry Lumley's W.F. Herman Secondary School program in Windsor; Lumley, who's developed players like O.J. Atogwe and Arjen Colquhoun, is quoted in Woods' piece as being torn on the Niagara program's benefits), and many of them are coming from traditional three-down programs. It's not clear that four-down high school football leads to more NCAA scholarships, either; sure, lots of B.C. players catch on south of the border, but so do plenty from the rest of the country. Generally, the biggest factor for NCAA interest is a prospect's raw talent, not what rules he's played under.

Also, while Niagara Academy's proven this model can work in tennis, football's a very different beast. For one thing, you need a lot more students to make it work, and it seems unlikely that the 100 per cent NCAA scholarship rate they boast in tennis will transfer over to football; that could lead to difficulties attracting and retaining students down the road, as $14,000 a year is a hefty price to pay for something that may or may not land you a NCAA scholarship. They're not really stepping into a vacuum either; sure, a specialized football academy is a bit of a new step, but this country's full of high school football powerhouses with track records of producing quality players for NCAA and CIS schools, and not all of their players are instantly going to leave for something new and unproven. Plus, program founder Trisha Levasseur was inspired to start the program based on her son's experience with American schools, and Woods' piece says he's set to be the quarterback for the next two years. While that could be perfectly fine (he is a highly-ranked talent), it does raise a few red flags from the outside. Still, if everything falls into place and Niagara is able to attract a lot of high-calibre football players, coach them up properly, build a schedule against quality American competition and do well, this program could perhaps turn into the pipeline to NCAA scholarships that its founder envisions it becoming.

Would that be good for Canadian football as a whole? Probably, but it's not like Canadian football was desperate for it. There's no inherent problem with an academy set up to funnel players to the NCAA; there's always going to be lots of football talent in this country, and lots of quality players will still wind up in CIS. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Niagara Academy students who don't land big scholarships south of the border take that route too (and funnily enough, they'd then have to make the transition to Canadian rules). Both CIS and the NCAA work as development systems for the NFL and CFL, and one high school's academy program isn't likely to dramatically alter the balance of power there. If this system works out as envisioned, great; more intensive training for Canadian high school football players is a plus. If it doesn't, though, the status quo's also pretty good, and there will be plenty of Canadians landing NCAA scholarships with or without this academy. It's an interesting initiative, and one well worth keeping an eye on, but it's a very small part of the overall picture of Canadian football development.

What to Read Next