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Canadian players are shining with American college football powers this season

When second-ranked Alabama visits Ole Miss on Saturday, a featured matchup could see a Vanier Cup-winning defensive back going up against a big-play Canadian receiver. It's just one of several big-time U.S.

When second-ranked Alabama visits Ole Miss on Saturday, a featured matchup could see a Vanier Cup-winning defensive back going up against a big-play Canadian receiver.

It's just one of several big-time U.S. college football clashes that will feature blue-chip Canadian talent on the field this weekend.

"There are many more Canadians who're shining," said Montreal Alouettes general manager Danny Maciocia. "In the last few years there seems to be an appetite for schools to come and look at these players coming out of CEGEP (in Quebec) and high schools in Canada and I think that's why we're seeing the numbers we're seeing."

Last weekend, John Metchie III, a six-foot, 195-pound sophomore receiver from Brampton, Ont., had five catches for 181 yards and two TDs in leading Alabama (2-0) past Texas A&M 52-24. Ole Miss (1-1) has two Canadians on its roster, including Calgary's Deane Leonard, a two-time all-Canadian defensive back who helped the Calgary Dinos win the Vanier Cup last year before transferring to the NCAA this off-season.

"I think it will be really cool (to have) two guys from Canada dueling on the big stage," Leonard said this week during a videoconference. "It will be really cool seeing him out there."

Defensive lineman Tavius Robinson of Guelph, Ont., is the other Canadian with the Rebels. The six-foot-seven, 245-pound defensive lineman also transferred to Ole Miss this winter from the University of Guelph. 

Chuba Hubbard, a junior running back from Sherwood Park, Alta., and senior linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga of Calgary are both stars for No. 10 Oklahoma State (3-0).

Hubbard surpassed 2,000 yards rushing last season and had a season-high 145 yards with two TDs in last weekend's 47-7 win over Kansas. Ogbongbemiga has a team-high 22 tackles and was the Cowboys' top defensive player last year after recording 100 tackles.

At least six of the top 11-ranked NCAA schools have Canucks either starting or on their roster. No. 9 Penn State has four Canadians listed and another — quarterback Christian Veilleux of Ottawa — committed to the Nittany Lions this off-season.

And then there's Syracuse University, which lists six Canadians — five from Quebec — on its roster.

At a time when neither the CFL nor U Sports are on the field due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the spotlight has shifted to Canadians playing south of the border. 

CFL officials have taken notice. Fourteen of the 20 players on the league's first scouting bureau rankings released this week are with American college programs.

"I think some of these players, just the level they're doing it at, might spawn a whole new younger generation playing the game and setting the bar really high to play skill positions at the highest level," said Drew Allemang, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' senior director of personnel and co-manager of football operations. "When you look at the days John Metchie III and Chuba Hubbard had last week, those are guys who're at the top of their position group in the U.S. right now.

"It's pretty remarkable and I think it creates exposure for the sport in our country. It's like that Steve Nash-Vince Carter effect that got so many people into basketball in Canada and hopefully something like that goes on with football here."

Alaric Jackson of Windsor, Ont., an offensive lineman at Iowa, tops the fall CFL Scouting Bureau list, followed by Ogbongbemiga and Vancouver's Terrell Jana, a receiver at Virginia.

Josh Palmer of Brampton, Ont., a receiver at 14th-ranked Tennessee (2-0), is No. 4 on the scouting bureau list. He had six catches for 85 yards and the game-winning TD grab in the Vols' season-opening 31-27 victory over South Carolina on Sept. 26.

Even the top-ranked Clemson Tigers (3-0) have a Canadian presence. Ajou Ajou, a receiver from Brooks, Alta., became the school's first-ever Canadian signee this winter and has dressed for all three games this season.

The scouting bureau list doesn't include the likes of  Hubbard, Oregon junior safety Jevon Holland of Coquitlam, B.C., and Minnesota redshirt junior defensive back Benjamin St-Juste of Montreal, all of whom are underclassmen. 

Holland, a two-year starter for the Ducks, opted out of the Pac-12 season last month and declared for the '21 NFL draft.

Two Canadians at major American programs were taken in this year's NFL draft. The Pittsburgh Steelers picked Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool of Abbotsford, B.C., in the second round before the Dallas Cowboys took Oklahoma defensive lineman Neville Gallimore of Ottawa in the third.

Maciocia served as head coach of the Montreal Carabins from 2011-19 (winning a Vanier Cup in 2014) before rejoining the Alouettes. He said he was often surprised not only with the talent level of the players he was recruiting but also the coaching they'd received.

"I think it's a combination of the two," he said. "I've been extremely impressed with not only how coaches develop their players but the schemes they use as the (players) are more pro ready now than they've ever been.

"The kids we were recruiting were ready to play. There was none of this redshirting, then playing teams and by the third year we project you to be a starter. Some of them are able to come in and play, contribute and have an impact immediately on Day 1."

A fact not lost upon Brent Monson, the Calgary Stampeders' defensive co-ordinator

"I know a few college coaches who've contacted us, me or people we know looking for players up here," he said. "It's definitely happening more frequently than it has in the past in my opinion.

"I think it shows there's many Canadians who can play down there. It's just some need a look and opportunity so they can showcase their skills."

Some players leave Canada to attend American high schools and further enhance their chances of securing a scholarship. But Allemang also said Canucks having the opportunity to represent their country globally is also helping to improve the talent base.

"I think those things combined have some say in the level of player because they're going to play against a bit better competition across the board talent-wise," Allemang said.

A drawback to the increased exposure is the likelihood Canadians in the NCAA will graduate to the NFL before coming north to play professionally. And in some cases, that could result in the player never setting foot in his native land as a pro.

"Yeah, that could happen," Monson said. "But as long as everyone is playing football and succeeding, then I'm happy."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2020.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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