O'Conner turns head at CFL combine
TORONTO — A stopwatch indicates quickness, while the 225-pound bench press tests strength.
But it's the chat teams have with players that Toronto Argonauts director of Canadian scouting Vince Magri believes is a club's best learning tool at the CFL's annual combine.
Last weekend, 65 players (47 Canadian, 18 European) were poked, prodded, tested and timed at the event. But the process also included select players being grilled by league coaches, general managers and scouts during a 15-minute interview.
"I think the interview is the most important part of this," said Magri. "From the on-field point of view, you're trying to marry what you see in testing to what you've already seen on film and it kind of validates what you thought you already knew.
"But with the interview process, this is where you really get a chance to know the kids. You might've had a conversation with them on a practice field and you get a lot of background information from coaches, trainers and position coaches. But to actually get the one-on-one and a feel for the player as a person, that's probably the most valuable."
The interview can be intimidating for a 20-something man used to being able to control most situations on the football field. The chat is held in a hotel suite and the player sits before anywhere between five to nine football coaches and officials.
"Truthfully, honesty is the big thing," Magri said. "Yes, they're kids and they've all taken different paths here.
"But do they own up to (any past mistakes) and have they learned from it? Some kids you can see almost a sense of maturity . . . you'd like to think they understand they've been given this extra chance (to play pro football) and will utilize it."
The Canadian Press attended four player interviews with the Argonauts (two), the B.C. Lions and Calgary Stampeders last weekend involving Oklahoma State tackle Shane Richards and UBC Thunderbirds quarterback Michael O'Connor.
O'Connor's honesty was front and centre Saturday when the Argos asked the Ottawa native why he left Penn State after just one year. Eight days before O'Connor arrived at the school, head coach Bill O'Brien — who recruited O'Connor — left to join the NFL's Houston Texans.
The six-foot-five, 235-pound O'Connor remained at Penn State but opted to leave at season's end because he felt the program was leaning toward dual-threat quarterbacks. O'Connor shunned offers from four other NCAA schools to attend UBC, helping the Thunderbirds win the Vanier Cup his first season there.
"I kind of took the easy way out and made excuses where I could've just put my nose down and worked harder," O'Connor said candidly. "Leaving Penn State left me in a dark place.
"For four months, I went back home and didn't really do anything but work out. Four years later I can reflect on that and know if I can get through that, then I can get through anything. I'm grateful too I went through something like that at such a young age because I feel many people in today's society maybe don't go through a struggle like that until they're a little bit older."
However, O'Connor has no regrets.
"No, never," he said. "If I could do it again, there's definitely some things I would've done differently. But I don't look back.
"I'm very privileged to have an opportunity to do what I love for a living and I don't take that for granted for one minute."
The night before, O'Connor addressed his decision to leave Penn State during his interview with Calgary. Among the Stampeders listening was president/GM John Hufnagel, a former Penn State quarterback.
"You know where he went to college?" Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson, a former NFL/CFL quarterback, said after O'Connor's explanation.
"Penn State," O'Connor said. "Coach (Joe) Paterno?
"Oh man, that's awesome."
The six-foot-six, 334-pound Richards was also contrite with B.C., admitting his weight ballooned to 380 pounds before enrolling at Oklahoma State. When asked why, Richards divulged he was attending a military school at the time and the food offered was high in calories because many students were involved in extensive physical training.
A nutritionist helped the Calgary resident shed the extra pounds and Richards assured B.C. officials his weight wouldn't be an issue in the CFL. When Richards was asked what his best position was, he tried answering generally, which tested head coach DeVone Claybrooks' patience.
"We're bringing you in tomorrow," he said emphatically."We're going to play you at this position and this is your best chance to make our team.
"Which one are you going to pick?"
Guard, Richards responded.
"Simply because I'm longer than most defensive tackles, my skill-set is faster," he said.
Predictably, O'Connor and Richards faced numerous football-related questions and both answered with confidence and conviction. Dickenson, though, wasn't surprised when O'Connor divulged he's represented by Vancouver-based agent Dan Vertlieb, whose clients also include B.C. quarterback Mike Reilly, Stamps starter Bo Levi Mitchell and Edmonton's Trevor Harris.
"He's a quarterback," Dickenson said with a chuckle. "He's going to have Dan."
Dickenson also asked O'Connor why he opted to attend Toronto's training camp last year rather than accept Calgary's invitation. O'Connor said while he would've liked to go to the Stamps camp, Thunderbirds head coach Blake Nill recommended he learn under former Argos head coach Marc Trestman.
"When you were in Toronto did you get any snaps," Hufnagel asked.
"The one-on-ones to the running backs was the highest level," O'Connor responded.
"You would've got to skelly (a 7-on-7 drill in practice) with us, maybe even (take part in) team (drills)," Dickenson said. "We feel if you're going to give us that much time, we need to give you something back."
Toronto wanted to know how Richardson would fare facing defensive linemen a yard off the ball, a major difference between Canadian and American football
"For me, technique is technique," he said. "A yard off the ball does affect it a little bit . . . if your hands are inside, if your feet are on the ground you can get the block made."
Richards was red-shirted in 2017 after his junior season, keeping him out of college competition for a year. He didn't hide his disappointment but showed he can make the best of a bad situation.
"I'll be honest, I was mad," he said. "But at the same time, I got much better with the mental aspect of football and ended up understanding football better.
"It became easier."
So it's not surprising Richards considered his mind as his biggest football asset. He listed his hands — an integral part of an offensive lineman's arsenal — as the weakest part of his game.
"They need to be precise and tighter," he said. "I thought I reached a lot in my pass pro to start (last) season.
"It improved when I changed my technique and I also changed how I run-blocked. I'm the type of person that if it's not working I'm not going to keep doing it . . . we're going to do something different."
Magri admits a 15-minute window isn't nearly enough to learn everything about a player.
"But it gets you a good snapshot," he said. "We gather background information originally beforehand so we do have that snapshot in our head already.
"It's similar to marrying the film to testing. The interview can marry some of the knowledge we get to what we already know."