For four years, Nick Mardner led the dream college life.

From 2018 to 2021, the six-foot-six, 183-pound receiver from Mississauga, Ont., played football at the University of Hawaii. He had 46 catches for 913 yards (19.8-yard average) and five touchdowns in 2021 after registering 16 receptions for 357 yards (22.3-yard average) and three TDs the previous two years combined.

Trouble was, Mardner's '21 campaign fell below the radar because he was on the West Coast, and Hawaii was 3-5 in the Mountain West Conference and 6-7 overall. The desire to play in the football mainstream and have an opportunity to be readily seen by pro scouts prompted Mardner to enter the transfer portal and ultimately join the Cincinnati Bearcats.

"It was, and trust me when I say this, an extremely hard decision because there's nothing like Hawaii and living there because the people, the culture, everything is one of a kind," Mardner said during a recent telephone interview. "But I felt like it was time to get back to the mainstream of things . . . seeing Cincinnati in the playoffs last year and the job (head) coach (Luke) Fickell did really drew me to it.

"That's what it really came down to."

Cincinnati (13-1) finished fourth in the NCAA rankings last season. The Bearcats beat Houston 35-20 in ACC championship game before losing 27-6 to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.

"We had our pro day (March 24) and it looked like Alabama's pro day," Mardner said. "There was like 95 to 100 scouts, six head coaches, it was big-time.

"I definitely think (Cincinnati) is a place where I can make a great impact and hopefully get more eyes on me."

When Cincinnati opens its season visiting Arkansas on Sept. 3, it will be minus two huge offensive performers in receiver Alec Pierce and quarterback Desmond Ridder. Both are expected to be taken in the 2022 NFL draft later this month.

The Bearcats hope Mardner, who redshirted his first season in Hawaii, can step in for the six-foot-three, 213-pound Pierce, who had 52 catches for 884 yards and eight TDs last season.

Replacing Ridder is a bigger task.

Ridder threw for 3,334 yards with 30 TDs last year and is Cincinnati's all-time leader in passing touchdowns (87) and total yardage (12,418). Ben Bryant, a transfer from Eastern Michigan, and redshirt sophomore Evan Prater are expected to battle for the starting job.

Mardner said he's had the chance to meet and work with Pierce as well as all four of the school's quarterback prospects. And predictably, Mardner is excited about his potential within the Bearcats' offence.

"I'm hoping I can pick up where Alec left off," Mardner said. "Throughout the spring I've caught balls from all four quarterbacks and it's been great.

"They (Ridder's) shoes are definitely going to be big shoes to fill but I think it comes down to developing chemistry over the summer, gaining that confidence between the receiver and quarterback rooms."

While also putting in the time for self-improvement.

"It (2021) was a good season but looking back there are things I can definitely improve upon," Mardner said. "I believe (2021) was just scratching the surface of what I'm capable of."

These are unprecedented times for Canadians in the NCAA ranks. Last year a record-tying four Canucks — defensive backs Jevon Holland and Benjamin St-Juste, receiver Josh Palmer and running back Chuba Hubbard — were selected in the NFL draft after receiver Chase Claypool (Pittsburgh) and defensive lineman Neville Gallimore (Dallas) were taken in 2020.

Like he did at Hawaii, Mardner said he'll be representing Canada while with Cincinnati and hopes his success makes it easier for other Canadians to follow suit. He's already approached the Bearcats training staff about having a small Canadian flag placed on the back of his helmet.

"I most definitely represent Canada," Mardner said. "If you have what it takes and are willing to put in the work, we (Canadians in NCAA) want to show the option is there and that it's more realistic now that it was back in the day when it was kind of unsure.

"Hopefully it will continue to grow and kids will continue to come out of Canada. I'm excited to see where it goes."

While Mardner is hoping his transfer to Cincinnati garners him NFL attention, he'll also be eligible for the '23 CFL draft.

He said he'll deal with pro football at the appropriate time.

"Honestly, I'm just looking forward to what's next and that's fall camp . . . nothing else really matters," he said. "I'm just trying to continue playing football for as long as I can.

"Whatever that is, is what it is. I'm just going to try and play for as long as I can because it's what I love to do."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April , 18, 2022.