The Canadian University football playoffs are down to the Final Four, with Western Ontario facing Laval in the Uteck Bowl and Saint Mary's taking on Calgary in the Mitchell Bowl. While a trip to the Vanier Cup is the most obvious goal for the players on these four teams, a handful of seniors on each squad have additional motivation to perform well on Saturday afternoon. With half of the CFL's eight teams already looking towards 2011, the draft eligible members of the Mustangs, Rouge et Or, Huskies, and Dinos will have a tremendous opportunity to improve their stock before next spring's Canadian Draft.
Here's a team by team look at some of the individuals who will be under the scouting spotlight in this weekend's national semi-final games.
Uteck Bowl (Saturday, Noon et/9am pt on TSN)
Western Ontario Mustangs
The most prominent Western product selected in the 2011 Draft will be defensive tackle Vaughn Martin. However, since he's in his second year with the NFL's San Diego Chargers, he won't figure into the action Saturday in Quebec City. Among the members of Mustang head coach Greg Marshall's first recruiting class who will play on Saturday, the most notable pro prospect is middle linebacker John Surla. Although slightly undersized by pro standards, the 2009 President's Trophy finalist is a sideline-to-sideline defender with an unsurpassed work ethic. Defensively, he is joined by halfback Craig Butler, an athletic two-time East West Bowl participant, who is sure to earn an E-Camp invitation, and 6'5", 253 lbs. defensive end Zander Robinson, who enjoyed a breakout season, leading the Mustangs with 6.5 sacks.
On the offensive side of the ball, three draft eligible players will figure significantly in the game plan. 225 pound running back Jerimy Hipperson averaged nearly 100 rushing yards per game while combining with junior Nathan Riva to give the Mustangs the nation's top ground attack. As for the passing game, fourth-year slotbacks Zach Bull and Nick Pasic both appear to be back on track after missing time with injuries during the regular season. Starting offensive linemen Greg Willson and Brendan Dunn are also eligible for the 2011 Draft but the sleeper could be fullback Dan Duff, a 282 lbs. former tight end with decent hands out of the backfield.
Laval Rouge et Or
Through the last nine CFL Drafts, the Rouge et Or have produced two first overall picks (Alexandre Gathier in '02 and Miguel Robédé in '05) and a Rookie of the Year finalist (Mathieu Proulx in '05). While none of the Laval players in the Class of 2011 are likely to achieve such lofty status, the program has enough prospects to support its reputation as Canada's football factory. Although he has been overshadowed on many scouting lists by Alberta kicker Hugh O'Neill, Laval's Christopher Milo has all the tools to kick and punt at the next level. His 42.2 yard punting average and 85% success rate on field goals speak for themselves.
When the Rouge et Or have the ball, draft junkies will want to keep an eye on three players in particular. Wideout Julian Féoli-Gudino has been one of the CIS' most prolific receivers over the last three seasons. He's not necessarily a burner but is still a terrific deep threat who has a knack for the big play. Should the CFL commit to giving Canadian quarterbacks a look in training camp, Féoli-Gudino's batterymate, Bruno Prud'homme, could parlay his athleticism and strong arm into an opportunity. Up front, guard Pascal Baillargeon turned heads at the East West Bowl in May and was ranked as the 15th best 2011 Draft prospect in September by the CFL's Canadian Scouting Bureau.
Defensively, most of the headlines will go to a trio from the Class of 2012, linebackers Samäel Lavaud and Fredric Plésius, and defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, but there are few players eligible for the draft in 2011 who will draw some attention. Defensive backs Jonathan Laliberté and Dominique Noël have combined for seven interceptions this season, with Laliberté, a physical free safety who played in the East West Bowl, emerging as the leading tackler in the secondary. Defensive end Marc-Antoine Louis Fortin is a solid all around D-Lineman but it's his skill as a long snapper that is more likely to earn him a job in the pro ranks.
Mitchell Bowl (Saturday, 3:30pm et/12:30pm pt on TSN)
Saint Mary's Huskies
The Huskies saw linebacker Karl McCartney and kicker Justin Palardy make an immediate special teams impact as CFL rookies after being drafted in 2010 but the success of this year's team has come without many players who are expected to follow in their footsteps in the upcoming draft. Their best 2011 prospect is likely East West Bowl participant Jeff Hecht, a strong side linebacker, who could also get a look as a free safety.
On offence, running back Craig Leger is capable of tearing it up against CIS competition but, at 5'9", 195 lbs., he'll face an uphill battle to earn a CFL roster spot. The same is true of fourth-year receiver Bryan Parr, who is 6'1" but is listed at just 175 lbs. and had seen little meaningful action prior to this season. Another draft eligible Huskie is big offensive lineman Milton Greyeyes but the former Edmonton Wildcats (CJFL) star isn't expected to play this weekend.
Saint Mary's most intriguing prospect may actually be backup defensive lineman Chris Hodgson. The former minor pro and university hockey player and son of one-time Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Paul Hodgson is in his first year of university football but, at age 26, he'll be eligible for the draft in 2011. He's clearly still raw as a football player but his size (6'3", 260 lbs.) and remarkable athleticism give him a huge upside.
If the draft rankings of the CFL's Canadian Scouting Bureau had any correlation to a CIS team's success, the Dinos could stake their claim to the 2010 Vanier Cup right now. Calgary placed three players in the Top Fifteen in the CSB's fall rankings and all three are offensive skill players. Slotback Anthony Parker is the top ranked CIS player and #3 overall prospect on the CSB list. The All-Canadian is, quite simply, the most explosive offensive player in CIS football and at 6'2", 215 lbs., also has the size to be effective at the next level. Parker's presence makes 6'2", 220 lbs. wide receiver Nathan Coehoorn (7th in CSB rankings) the only two-time All-Canadian in recent memory to be regarded as the second best pro prospect in his own team's receiving corps. Coehoorn, by the way, was the top receiver in testing at the East West Bowl. If that's not enough, the Dinos O also boasts the CSB's #14 prospect in running back Matt Walter, who was fifth in the nation in rushing this season.
While the skill guys grab the headlines, the reality is that they owe a lot of their success to an offensive line that boasted three conference all-stars, all of whom also happen to be draft eligible. 6'9" tackle Paul Swiston was voted by Canada West coaches as the league's best lineman. Guard Reed Alexander's fine season was just the continuation of an East West Bowl performance that put him on the scouting radar, and centre Alex Krausnick-Groh's all-star selection was his second in a row. Among the other half dozen or so Dinos in the Class of 2011 who should contribute on Saturday, defensive back Wyatt Getty and slot Richard Snyder are the most likely to figure prominenently in the game.
Good luck to all of the players, pro prospects and otherwise, on all four teams as they pursue their goal of reaching the Vanier Cup.