Carolina Panthers take Canadian RB Chuba Hubbard in fourth round of 2021 NFL draft

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Chuba Hubbard made it a record-tying NFL draft for Canada on Saturday.

The Oklahoma State running back from Sherwood Park, Alta., was taken by the Carolina Panthers in the fourth round, No. 126 overall, of the draft. That made Hubbard the fourth Canadian selected, tying the 2014 mark for most Canucks picked.

With both Iowa tackle Alaric Jackson of Windsor, Ont., and Oklahoma State linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga of Calgary still on the board, though, it appeared a good bet it would be a record-setting draft for this country. But both were bypassed before Ogbongbemiga signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as a free agent while Jackson signed with the L.A, Rams.

Cincinnati tight end Bruno Labelle, of Montreal signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent. And Montreal Carabins offensive lineman Pier-Olivier Lestage, of Saint-Eustache, Que., signed with the Seattle Seahawks, also as a free agent.

Jackson not being drafted was a surprise given the towering six-foot-six, 321-pound offensive lineman was a four-year starter at Iowa. Ogbongbemiga wasn't chopped liver either, being selected as Oklahoma State's top defensive player in 2019.

Being one of four Canadians drafted was a source of pride for Hubbard.

"It just shows there's a lot of hidden gems across the border," Hubbard said during a Panthers' Zoom call Saturday. "The fact that you see a lot of guys from Canada, so many of my friends, so many guys that I know, make their dreams come true and achieve all of these things, it's great.

"It's a special feeling. I hope that this shows that younger guys from Canada and really all over, they can do the same thing. We just continue to create this pipeline from Canada to the States for football and really all other sports."

Hubbard became the first Canadian running back taken in the NFL draft since Carolina selected Montreal's Tim Biakabutuka in the opening round in 1996.

Hubbard had to wait two days in order to hear his name called. The first-round selections were made Thursday night, followed by the second and third rounds Friday.

Three Canadians were taken Friday night.

Oregon safety Jevon Holland of Coquitlam, B.C., went in the second round, No. 36 overall, to the Miami Dolphins. Minnesota cornerback Benjamin St-Juste of Montreal and Tennessee receiver Josh Palmer of Brampton, Ont., were taken in the third round by Washington and the L.A. Chargers, respectively.

"We all know each another and collectively I think that (good showing in 2021 draft) was our goal," St-Juste said. "Growing up we didn't see any Canadians going to the draft and really didn't have role models to look up to.

"Now, the younger generation sees all of us getting drafted so they have someone to look up to, they have someone to ask questions like, 'How can I make it?' . . . I think that's what we want to give back to our community and give back to our country."

The six-foot, 208-pound Hubbard ran for 625 yards (4.7-yard average) and five touchdowns last season. After missing two games with a high ankle sprain, he decided to opt out of the remainder of the '20 campaign and declare for the draft.

It wasn't the ending Hubbard envisioned when he decided to remain in school after leading American university football with 2,094 yards rushing (6.4-yard average) and 21 TDs in 2019.

"It (2020) was a period to get better, become a better person, better leader, better football player," Hubbard said. "That's really what this year has been. … I just look at it as a year of learning and growth, that's how I've taken it."

Hubbard proved earlier this month at Oklahoma State's pro day he's healthy again, posting an official 40-yard dash time of 4.48 seconds, although some social media reports had him running under 4.40 seconds.

He also registered a 36-inch vertical jump, 4.26-second short shuttle and 20 reps in the 225-pound bench press.

Hubbard will provide depth behind starting running back Christian McCaffrey, who ran for 1,387 yards in 2019.

"I know I definitely need to work on my pass protection," Hubbard said. "In regards to the passing game … I definitely feel I can be a threat there, a weapon there.

"Obviously Christian McCaffrey does a lot of work there and I think I model a lot of my stuff when it comes to catching the ball after him. I have a big chip on my shoulder. I promise (the Panthers) are going to get the best out of me."

In fact, Hubbard said he grew up a Panthers fan and cheered for the team in its 24-10 Super Bowl loss to Denver on Feb. 7, 2016.

"I grew up a big Cam Newton fan," Hubbard said. "Going into the Super Bowl against the Broncos, I was really hoping the Panthers were going to win, I'm not going to lie.

"I'm forever fortunate enough, forever blessed to be chosen by them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press