March 21, 2017

Regina products are looking to shine at CFL combine

Piper Sports Photography

Mitchell Picton is looking forward to running around and playing some football in his own backyard next week.

The Regina-born University of Regina Rams receiver is slated to be one of the participants at the CFL’s national combine, March 23-25 at Evraz Place.

“It’s huge for me,” Picton said of having the event in his hometown. “I don’t have to travel, so I’m not going to have heavy legs from being on a plane.

“I’ll be sleeping in my own bed and having home-cooked meals — nothing’s going to change for me. It’s going to be like training except I’m going to be on a bigger stage.

“My family, my friends and my girlfriend are all going to be there watching and supporting me throughout the whole thing, so I’m really looking forward to that.”

Picton isn’t the only Reginan slated to participate in the national combine. Other Queen City products on the 41-man roster are Rams offensive lineman Jeremy Zver, University of Saskatchewan Huskies O-lineman Evan Johnson and McMaster University Marauders quarterback Asher Hastings.

More Regina residents could participate if they advance from the western regional combine, which is set for March 23 at Evraz Place.

Johnson, who played his high school football with the Campbell Tartans, admitted he’s feeling “nervous excitement” as the combine approaches.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “All the CFL teams are going to be there and you’re going to be competing with the best players in the country, so you’ve got to try to perform the best you can.

“I’ve got to go into it with the same intent that I’ve always had playing football: Prepare the best you can and when it comes down to it, do your best and hopefully things work out.”

The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Johnson has been preparing for the combine in Saskatoon by working out with former Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Joel Lipinski.

All of the combine participants face physical testing (40-yard dash, shuttle run, three-cone drill, vertical jump, broad jump and 225-pound bench press) as well as position-specific individual drills, one-on-ones, and interviews with representatives of CFL teams.

Many of the invitees have been to combines before — there’s one held before the East-West Bowl, the annual U Sports all-star game — and that could help calm the participants’ nerves.

Johnson, 22, certainly hopes it does.

“I’m expecting to be competitive with everyone there,” he said. “Testing-wise, I’ve usually been pretty good as far as my speed and agility, so I’m hoping that carries me through.”

Picton, 21, also has high expectations for himself.

He and his Rams teammates who are going to the regional and national combines have been training with former Roughrider Levi Steinhauer to prepare for the testing.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Picton also has been working with Rams quarterback Noah Picton (Mitchell’s cousin) and U of R offensive co-ordinator Mark McConkey for the individual drills.

Mitchell Picton was the 20th-ranked prospect in the CFL Scouting Bureau’s February rankings, but the product of the LeBoldus Golden Suns high school program isn’t feeling any pressure to live up to that rating.

“I’m just going to do what I do,” said Picton, who led Canada West in 2016 in receptions (58), receiving yards (834) and touchdown catches (11) en route to being named a first-team U Sports All-Canadian.

“I’m going to compete against myself and hopefully put up some good numbers. Then, in the one-on-ones and skills, I’m going to try to show what kind of a football player I am.”

Both Johnson and Picton used the term “job interview” to describe the combine, since the prospects need to impress people who hold the players’ futures in pro football in their hands.

The hopefuls know they can’t get caught up in the magnitude of the combine — “Just go in there with a level head and do what you do,” is how Picton put it — but they also have to be realistic.

“It’s kind of scary to already be here,” Picton said of being on the verge of a CFL career. “If you would have told me in my second year with the Rams that I was going to be at this stage, I would have told you that you were crazy.

“Playing pro football is a dream of mine, so this is definitely a huge step and something I’m taking extremely seriously.”