While it might be a stretch to say that the Canadian Junior Football League is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Canadian football system, the three conference league’s exposure is in the shadows of the CIS and NCAA in terms of how effective it can be in terms of player development.
The CJFL should get more respect, especially in BC.
There are the players who used the CJFL as a critical step in their road to the CFL. Lions first round pick Marco Iannuzzi was a CJFL All-Canadian punt returner as a member of the 2005 Canadian Bowl Champion, Edmonton Huskies. He’s one of many players to have successfully combined a junior career with a collegiate career.
Others have taken a more direct route. In the case of the Lions three key players came through the junior ranks. Last season’s Most Outstanding Player nominee Paul McCallum (Surrey Rams, BCFC), safety J.R. LaRose (Edmonton Huskies, PJFC) and the multi-talented Andrew Harris (Vancouver Island Raiders, BCFC) occupy at least five key spots.
Calgary running back Rob Cote (Victoria, BCFC) and Saskatchewan running back Stu Foord (Regina, PJFC) are the other two junior grads that are on active 46-man rosters in the CFL.
It would not be a leap of logic to suggest that the non-import with the best growth potential in the CFL is Harris.
The first time the Lions’ bird-dog Roy Shivers saw Harris in game action, his first question to Wally Buono was what Division I school was Harris from, and how did he miss him on the scouting trail?
The all-time CJFL leader in points, TDs and 200-yard games, Harris was the undisputed leader of the Vancouver Island team.
Over four seasons with the Raiders he lead his club to back-to-back Canadian Bowl championships in 2008 and 2009, was named to the CJFL All-Canadian team four times (2006-09). He was also named the Canadian Bowl offensive player of the game twice (2006, 2008).
More significantly, in his first full pro season with the Lions in 2010, Harris reeled off a 72-yard kickoff return versus Toronto, and a 55-yard return against Calgary.
In total as a returner, he notched 505 yards on 23 kickoff returns and another 205 yards on 23 punt returns.
He can play tailback and wideout and be very productive beside Tim Brown on the return team.
Growing up in Winnipeg, he was a standout at hockey before he made the jump to football.
“I played AAA Bantam and Midget and was getting serious looks from the WHL before the (annual bantam) draft, but just before the draft I made my decision to stick with football.”
All signs pointed to Harris going to the CIS when graduating out of high school. He had committed to the Laurier Golden Hawks, but things took a turn westward before his first camp.
“My grades weren’t what they should be so I talked to the organization and staff with the Raiders when they were just getting things started in Nanaimo, and thought I’d go there for a year before going back to the CIS. It turned out that I loved playing in that organization,” Harris said.
“(Owner) Hadi (Abassi) really put a great program together from the first year on. Now they have a top staff, they recruit the best players and they support it with a great scholarship program.”
Another advantage to Harris’ development was the fact that he was eligible to participate in the Lions’ training camp, two years before he ever took to the field as a professional.
Undergraduate CJFL players do not take up an active roster spot on a CFL roster.
“One of the reasons I decided to stay (in Nanaimo) after one year was that I saw what Lorne Plante was doing on the offensive line with the Lions as a junior player. So I ended up doing the same thing and attended my first pro camp when I was 19 years old and I think it pushed my development further ahead than the guys who were only in their second year of university,” he said.
The camps ushered Harris into the speed of the professional game. It’s a game speed which he is still surprisingly taken aback by.
“Returning in the CFL is crazy and I am still adjusting.”
“From the first week through the 18th week, what I saw happening in front of me began to slow down a little bit every game.”
It might be frightening to think what Harris will be capable of when he’s actually up to speed.
That’s what this game is already getting billed as in Vancouver. Considering the Lions 1-7 start last year, and the fact the team hosts the Grey Cup this year, the local media has built up the importance of this game.
Stanley Franks will check back into the lineup at defensive half, and J.R. LaRose’s arm has mended enough from a fracture for his first start at safety this season.
Sophomore slotback Stephen Black will replace an injured Nick Moore.
The Stamps ride a five game Vancouver winning streak into tonight’s game, which dates back to 2007. However, the Lions broke part of the curse by winning their last two at McMahon Stadium.
The Lions defense has been focused on forcing 2010 MOP Henry Burris to keep his feet moving. Defensive coordinator Mike Benevedes has been working on a pressure offense all week in practice.
DURABILITY AN ISSUE
No BC quarterback has started more than 12 games in a season since 2004 (Casey Printers 14 starts). Travis Lulay starts the 2011 season as the Lions’ top QB and will be looking to post the first complete 18-start season by any BC quarterback since Damon Allen in 2002.