March 21, 2017

Regional combines provide hopefuls with opportunities

Nothing against the CFL’s western regional combine, but 46 players are eager to move on from it.

Strong performances at that event (which is set for March 23 at Evraz Place) could allow a handful of players to advance to the CFL’s national combine (March 23-25 at Evraz Place).

The first step is standing out at the regional event.

“You can never take these opportunities for granted,” said University of Regina Rams linebacker Michael Stefanovic, one of the invitees to the regional combine.

“You want to be invited to the national combine and that’s the end goal. You have this chance, so you’ve got to do everything you can. If you get a shot to go to the national combine, great. If not, make sure you don’t leave anything behind.”

Many of the participants in the regional combine have gone to similar events before.

The East-West Bowl — an annual U Sports all-star game for players who are eligible for the following year’s CFL draft — features a combine that includes the drills the players will face at the regional combine.

There will be a difference, though.

“This one will be a little bit more competitive because you’re competing for a spot at the national combine and you’re competing for a spot in the draft,” said University of Saskatchewan Huskies receiver Mitch Hillis, another invitee to the regional combine. “It’s going to be more of a work trip than an all-star game like East-West …

“The East-West combine was a little more relaxed because there wasn’t as much at stake, but everybody still wanted to do their best. There might be a little bit more pressure (at the regional combine), but I don’t think it will affect me or the other guys too much.”

This is the fifth year that the CFL has staged regional combines prior to the national event.

Not only do the satellite events give players an opportunity to advance to the national combine, they also provide hopefuls with another chance to be seen.

The combine rosters include a mixture of draft-eligible players and players who are undrafted free agents — and they’ll all do their thing under the watchful eyes of CFL personnel types.

“(The regionals) serve a purpose because the more guys we can see in front of us, the better,” said Jeremy O’Day, the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ assistant vice-president of football operations and administration. “Every year there are guys at the national combine who don’t get selected (in the draft) and there are guys at the regional combine who do get selected or signed as free agents.

“We don’t always get it right with the guys we invite to the national combine. There are always going to be some mistakes or guys you wish you had seen. The regionals eliminate that.”

Teams provide the CFL with a list of players they would like to see at the combines. Then the league’s football operations staff consults U Sports coaches to see if there are other players who should be invited.

This year, that process resulted in 10 players from Saskatchewan teams being invited to the western combine.

The roster includes six Rams (Stefanovic, receiver Andrew Bennett, offensive lineman Matt Degelman, linebacker Zack McEachern, defensive tackle Bryce McKinnon and defensive back Jeff Propp), three Huskies (Hillis, O-lineman Caleb Eidsvik and receiver Julan Lynch) and one member of the PFC’s Regina Thunder (defensive tackle Ryan Warner).

The invitees have spent weeks training for the physical testing (40-yard dash, 225-pound bench press, three-cone run, shuttle run, broad jump and vertical jump) and position-specific one-on-one drills they’ll be asked to perform at the regional combine.

Not surprisingly, both Hillis and Stefanovic expect to advance to the national event. But neither views the regional combine as his final chance to make an impression, either.

“You’ve got to think of it as an opportunity rather than a last shot,” said Stefanovic, 22. “There are a lot of guys who go through the process and don’t get a look and then get a great look the next year. Riley Wilson (a former Rams receiver who signed with the Ottawa Redblacks as an undrafted free agent) is a pretty good example of that.

“That being said, you certainly don’t want to waste this opportunity.”

Hillis agreed.

“If the scenario comes up where you go back (to school) for your fifth year, you still have a chance to prove to teams that maybe you should have been taken in the draft,” said the 22-year-old product of Saskatoon.

“I wouldn’t say (the combine) is your last chance, but it is a big stepping stone. You might get one last hurrah in your fifth year, but this is where it all counts.”