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PSAC football players finding fit in CFL

Chuck Curti
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Hamilton Tiger-Cats Football Club
Clarion grad Julian Howsare is a rookie with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

College football generally doesn’t produce much buzz in the summer. Signings hit a lull, spring games are in the rear-view mirror and players cloister themselves in weight rooms to prepare for fall camp.

But June 21 was a big day around the program at Edinboro: The Saskatchewan Roughriders and Ottawa Redblacks squared off in a Canadian Football League game.

Why the excitement? The Riders vice president of football operations is Edinboro alumnus Jeremy O’Day. The Redblacks starting quarterback is Trevor Harris, who, between 2006 and ’09, set most of the Fighting Scots’ major passing records.

“For us, (that) was a huge week,” Edinboro coach Wayne Bradford said. “It was Edinboro vs. Edinboro. It keeps us in the news all summer when there’s a bit of a lag.”

According to the CFL, 42 players from the PSAC have been on active rosters since 1936. Not an overwhelming number, but 26 entered the league after 1999. One of those, Cal (Pa.) running back Wes Cates, helped Saskatchewan win the 2007 Grey Cup and was a CFL All-Star in ’08.

Two other PSAC players, including O’Day, had careers that began in the 1990s and spilled over into the early 2000s.

A bit further back, running back David Green (Edinboro) was the CFL Most Outstanding Player in 1979.

“There has been a strong history of very good CFL players who have come out of the (PSAC),” said O’Day, who has been with Saskatchewan as a player or front-office employee for 20 years. “Over the last number of years, there has been a focus on the PSAC because of the guys who have had success in our league and also the NFL.”

Five PSAC players started the 2018 season on active rosters in Canada: Harris, RB Terry Williams (Kutztown/Calgary), LB Ian Wild (Mercyhurst/Winnipeg), DE Julian Howsare (Clarion/Hamilton) and DB Tommie Campbell (Cal (Pa.)/Montreal). A sixth, OL Andrew Peirson (Gannon), is on the British Columbia practice squad.

One of the primary reasons for PSAC players being a good fit for the Canadian game is their physical attributes. With its larger field and three-down format, the pass-happy CFL values mobility over monster size. Wild, a Baldwin graduate, plays linebacker at 6-foot, 213 pounds, which would be undersized in the NFL. Likewise, Howsare plays defensive end at 6-3, 255. But they are perfect for the CFL.

To counterpunch the smaller, faster pass rushers, CFL teams often employ lighter, more nimble offensive linemen.

“Being a passing league, you’re looking for some mobility to protect the quarterback,” Hamilton assistant GM Shawn Burke said. “They’re coming off the edge more than in the NFL. We’re not looking for big, burly guys because you don’t need to run block that much.”

Added Gannon coach Brad Rzyczycki: “(The PSAC has) more of the 280-, 290-pound offensive tackles who are 6-6. It’s athletes all over the field when you’re talking about Canadian football.”

Small-school linemen and pass rushers received the lion’s share of attention in the past, but O’Day said CFL scouts have started to place greater value on skill positions. More players such as Cates and Harris, O’Day said, could be coming to Canada from the PSAC.

“If you look at (the PSAC) over the past five to 10 years … we’ve had a quarterback-driven league,” Bradford said. “We’re spreading the ball, throwing vertically. That’s the Canadian game.”

In terms of finding the next great skill player, the proliferation of online videos and other technology, of course, has helped CFL scouts scan American college programs. But there still is plenty of in-person scouting of the PSAC. For teams in eastern Canada, particularly Hamilton and Toronto, making a drive to Gannon, Mercyhurst or Edinboro is no big deal.

O’Day’s ties to the school land him at Edinboro a couple of times a year. When he doesn’t see players during live practices or games, he collects film on the Scots. That also allows him to see all of their PSAC opponents and evaluate their players.

To entice CFL scouts to watch his team, Rzyczycki tries to keep at least one Canadian player on his roster. Peirson was that player last season, and attention on him helped QB/WR Tyler Palka get a look from the CFL.

“We do extensive scouting of all the conferences in the U.S.,” Burke said, “and, obviously, with the proximity, the PSAC is a little easier to get to, and it’s got a rich tradition of players in our league.

“With our league, you use any resource possible.”

Burke said Canadian clubs also like the toughness of players from Pennsylvania schools as well as their aptitude for playing in bad weather. By the time the CFL season wraps up in late November, weather is a factor in the Great White North.

Rzyczycki said he also believes the PSAC’s reputation as one of the best Division II conferences in the country is a draw for Canadian scouts.

Given the conference’s standing, its recent history of producing CFL players and with more American skill players getting noticed, the PSAC pipeline to Canada isn’t likely to run dry anytime soon.

“What’s good about the players from the PSAC is they were either overlooked or didn’t get an opportunity to play Division I football,” O’Day said. “They’re blue-collar guys who feel like they have something to prove. If you’re not paying attention to that, you’re missing out on some good players.”

Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Contact him at [email protected]
or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.

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