The CFL-XFL talks aside, one of the most endearing things about the Canadian Football League is that it offers opportunities for homegrown players to carve out a career playing our uniquely national game.
Every year, talented Canadian rookies get the chance to show that they have the abilities and skillsets to make it in the game. Some go on to make their mark, some do not, but that’s the way pro sports work and the CFL has been their best option for more than 100 years.
Right from the opening whistle of the last CFL preseason in 2019, rookie quarterback Michael O’Connor was given game time by Toronto in a game against Montreal. Not only did the UBC graduate and Vanier Cup champion complete four of five passes right out of the gate, but he threw a TD in that set of downs.
O’Connor got some in-game reps during the 2019 regular season in which he completed 60% of his passes, including a major, and rushed for another score. He signed with Calgary this offseason and will no doubt learn a ton from Grey Cup-winning QB Bo Levi Mitchell.
The 2019 preseason also highlighted the abilities of Winnipeg-born running back Brady Oliveira, who was drafted by the Blue Bombers that year.
He immediately showed why the team signed him as a prospective back up to the man widely regarded as the best-ever RB in CFL history, Andrew Harris, with some stellar powerhouse runs in the opening game against the Edmonton Football Team.
“Running down on special teams, getting in there when my number was called on offence and getting some carries and making the most of it,” Oliveira told Global News afterwards.
However, just three weeks into the regular season he got an ankle injury that brought a premature end to his rookie year. Fortunately, or otherwise for Oliveira, there was no season in 2020 because of the pandemic so he has had a whole lot of extra time to heal, and as such, is raring to go in 2021 all things being equal.
Another rookie QB with a pretty good mentor to learn from as he awaits his opportunity to shine is Nathan Rourke, who was drafted in 2020 by the BC Lions.
“I think I’m in such a great situation as a young guy who still has so much to learn and to be able to go in and learn from one of the best in the game,” Rourke told BCLions.com at the time.
He was referring to Mike Reilly, one of the most proficient QBs in the game today. Rourke, originally from Ontario, had a remarkable US collegiate career with Ohio, which led to him being drafted at #15, tied for the highest QB selection in the CFL draft.
And one other player from the 2020 draft with big wraps on him is kicker Marc Liegghio from Western University. He was picked up by Winnipeg as the Bombers see him as their potential future with Justin Medlock becoming a free agent.
On the flip side, another Blue Bomber who showed promise in the 2019 preseason was receiver Dylan Schrot, a product of the University of Manitoba. He too was given game time against Edmonton and guess what? He scored the only TD of that contest on a deep passing route drawn up especially for him by Winnipeg’s coaching staff.
Schrot was eventually cut by the Bombers that season and hasn’t gone on with his playing career since, and nor has another promising player from a recent crop of young talents, Noah Picton.
He graduated from the University of Regina with impressive stats including being the all-time leading passer in U SPORTS history and twice being named a West Canada All-Star and First Team All-Canadian.
Picton was signed to a three-year deal by Toronto after going undrafted in 2018. He ended up seeing only minimal game time in the 2019 preseason and then, of course, nada in 2020.
Perhaps that’s why he opted for a more reliable career path by accepting a position as quarterbacks coach with his alma mater.
Now, as we make our way through 2021, there is a glimmer of hope that there will be a CFL season this year even though the world continues to deal with COVID-19.
If there is one, it’s unclear if it will be an 18-game season kicking off in June, or whether it will be an abbreviated version starting on Labour Day. The CFL, in conjunction with the CFLPA and public health officials, are still noodling that one.
Despite the uncertainties, all nine teams have been building their rosters in the belief that there will be a season.
Of particular note, Montreal and Ottawa have brought in a truckload of local talent, specifically Quebecers. The Als have 24 Quebec-born players on their roster and the Redblacks have 11.
“It’s important to have local guys because they are a great source of pride for our fans,” Alouettes director of football operations Éric Deslauriers told the team’s website.
And therein lies one of the things that makes the CFL unique and one which could potentially be affected by talks with the XFL.