55 Yard Line - CFL

For those who don't already know, Yahoo! has some great coverage of high school and college football through Rivals and the Prep Rally (high school) and Dr. Saturday (NCAA) blogs. Yesterday, Rivals' recruiting analyst Greg Ladky put together a fantastic package on Canadian high school football prospects who head to the NCAA. We'll explore some of its implications here, but the whole thing is worth a read, and it also provides an excellent jumping-off point for a discussion on the state of Canadian talent development.

The player Ladky primarily focuses on is defensive back Arjen Colquhoun, who plays at Windsor's W.F. Herman Secondary School. Rivals has Colquhoun ranked as a three-star prospect, and he committed to Michigan State this past summer. Here's Ladky's interview with him:

There are some interesting comments from Colquhoun in there. For example, he says playing for the Spartans has been a long-held dream.

"Just when I was younger, my dad and I were watching them," he said. "The first time I ever watched them, I was like I want to go there, I want to play for Michigan State. It sort of just happened; I set my goal, it finally came and I took my opportunity."

Many football players obviously have those dreams, but it's not all that common for them to achieve them. Michigan State's often a pretty strong school, and they're off to an 8-0 start and ranked fifth in the BCS standings this year. It's not like they're just taking whatever recruits want to come there, so it says a fair bit about Colquhoun that he was able to get a scholarship from the Spartans. You can tell he's already working on preparing for the next level, too, and he's been down to Spartan Stadium for four of Michigan State's five home games so far this season. Colquhoun told Ladky he's been impressed with the way the team's playing.

"You can see that they want to win," he said. "They're hungry."

We'll see if Colquhoun can bring that same hunger to the Spartans' program. He certainly seems to have the raw talent to succeed at the NCAA level. W.F. Herman head coach Harry Lumley knows talent when he sees it, as he's coached the likes of O.J. Atogwe over the years. Atogwe went on to a great college career with Stanford and then headed to the NFL; he's currently showing off his ball-hawking skills with the St. Louis Rams. Lumley told Ladky Colquhoun may be an even better pure athlete, however:

"Arjen's a better pure athlete," Lumley said. "He's bigger, stronger, faster, but whether he works as hard as O.J. did...O.J. was so dedicated to being successful. He wouldn't let anything get in his way, whether it was school, girls, anything. He was going to make it to the show, he had a great work ethic. Arjen has a good work ethic, but he's not O.J. yet, and we've talked a lot about it. As a pure athlete... we had one years ago, but he's better I think than most of the ones around here for the last 20 years."

You can see some of Colquhoun's skills in this game highlights video Ladky shot:

Pure talent isn't always enough, however. As Ladky points out, the differences between American and Canadian football can make it tough for Canadian players to adapt to the NCAA (some provinces, like B.C., do use American rules in high school). There are also other barriers, some of which he explores in this video overview on the state of Canadian recruiting:

In there, Lumley makes some interesting comments about the paperwork involved in bringing Canadian kids south:

"It's a lot of hassle for American schools to get a Canadian kid," he said. "They've got to go through a lot of hassles with I-20s, all the forms and everything. It's a big expenditure, and they want kids to come over and do well. We tell the kids all the time, you're opening great doors for other kids, but if you don't do well, you're closing them also. Make sure when you go you don't quit, you do all the things you're supposed to. In fact, be a harder worker than anyone else."

Lumley also mentions that the focus on football in the U.S. is much more intense, which can make the adjustment even tougher.

"I go over a lot to Michigan, to high-school games, and I know a lot of the coaches," he said. "Their off-season stuff is so much more intense than over here. Kids over here tend to play three to four sports, don't get into the weight room as much, so it's a real culture shock when you're getting up at 5:30 in the morning and you've got to work out, then you've got to go to class, then to football for six hours, then back to class. It's a culture shock a lot of kids can't handle."

That's certainly been proven true over the years. It's not only tough to crack the NCAA; it's also difficult to succeed once you're there. Lumley said the easiest way to remedy that is to develop talented players and instill a strong work ethic in them.

"Let's make it to the point where they can't refuse to take our kids," he said.

He's optimistic that's going to happen.

"I just think over the next 10 years we're going to see a lot more kids going over there."

Another key element in the process happens when American coaches have success with Canadian players and build relationships with Canadian high school coaches. The difficulties around recruiting Canadians mean that not every NCAA program is going to do so, but many of those that have put in the effort have reaped valuable talent as a reward. The trailblazers kick down the door for others to follow. Lumley said that's happened with Michigan State, and he thinks the school's track record with Canadians makes it a good choice for Colquhon.

"I'm really excited about him going to Michigan State, especially the way their program's going," he said.
"We've had kind of a relationship the last few years, with kids from our area going to Michigan State. A lot of the guys I hang around with went to Michigan State, and they're now teaching in our school."

Those trailblazers can also have an impact on a personal level. When guys like Atogwe find success at the NCAA and NFL levels, many of them remember where they came from and reach back to help out others. Colquhon said he's received some valuable advice from Atogwe on what he should focus on.

"I've talked to O.J. about his edge and what he's worked on and what he thought he had to work on to get to the next level," Colquhon said. "Definitely having people that have done it and have made it to the NFL can really give you some good insight on what you have to do."

Colquhon said Atogwe warned him about the heightened level of athletic talent in the NCAA, but added that it can also be beneficial.

"He told me, ‘They're bigger, they're faster, but you're also playing with them, so you get better too. It just takes time to adjust but you can do it if you really try.'"

That touches on the last crucial part of this issue. With anything around Canadian players heading to American schools, there are going to be some people who argue that all Canadians should stay at home and play CIS football. There are also those who argue that every Canadian who has the chance to play anywhere in the States should do so. I don't think either extreme's the right way to go.

It doesn't help Canadian players if they all head to the U.S. to serve as benchwarmers at big American schools, but I'm not sure it would be beneficial to encourage every Canadian to stay home and play CIS football either. American college football has a much higher profile, and success there can make it easier for players to find success in the ranks of the CFL or the NFL. Each player needs to find the program that's right for them.

Really, it's not necessarily so much about where you play as how well you play. Winnipeg showed that this week with their signing of a couple of Division III quarterbacks, and Canadian high school and CIS-trained players like Vaughn Martin of San Diego (via the University of Western Ontario) and Cory Greenwood (pictured, above) of Kansas City (via Concordia University) have found success in the NFL.

Canadian high school football is getting better all the time, as is Canadian university football; it's worth noting that 36 of the 47 players taken in this year's CFL draft came from the CIS ranks, including #1 overall pick Shomari Williams of Queen's University (who's having a solid season with Saskatchewan). In my mind, the ultimate goal is developing Canadian football players to be the best that they can be. The high school, CIS and NCAA ranks all have a role to play in that, and it's worth focusing on that overall goal rather than squabbling over each level's individual role.

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