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Jeremy Snyder remembers watching Ed Ilnicki at last year’s CFL Western Regional Combine.
Ever elusive, the University of Alberta Golden Bears running back slipped through the cracks of the 50-person workout that day in Regina and didn’t get an invite to the national combine in Regina. But Snyder, the Ottawa REDBLACKS assistant GM, came away from that day impressed with what he saw.
“I remember we were in the draft room and we were watching him. I was one of the scouts that (assessed) him first. I said, ‘There’s nothing that really stands out about the kid, but every time he runs the ball, the pile is always moving forward,’” Snyder said earlier this week from Ottawa.
“It was just every play, it didn’t matter. He gets hit at three yards, but the pile moves to five, six. We just kept following him and guys started buying in. He was sitting there (in the draft) late and we took a chance on him.”
Ottawa took him in the seventh round of last year’s draft, 62nd overall. Ilnicki, by that time going into his fifth year with the Bears, had long been the team’s primary ball carrier, rushing 151 times for 750 yards in 2016. He essentially doubled his stats in 2017, rushing 196 times for 1,468 yards, averaging 183.5 yards per game. Per. Game.
“He goes back for his fifth year and blows up,” Snyder said, “and becomes one of the all-time best rushers in U Sports history.”
The Hec Creighton trophy winner for 2017, Ilnicki will officially join the REDBLACKS this season. He signed a two-year deal with the club in January.
The regional combine celebrates its sixth anniversary this week, kicked off with the Eastern Regional in Montreal on Wednesday and followed up by the Ontario Regional on Friday in Toronto. The West combine goes on March 22 in Regina. The top performing players at each stop — usually no more than five per camp — get an invite to the national combine.
While the highly-touted prospects have already secured their national invites to the combine, the players at the regionals are on the outside hoping to get in, often due to unforeseen circumstances.
“There are a lot of times that there are players that have maybe been injured at some point in their career, or maybe had a lack of playing time for one reason or another,” Brendan Mahoney, the Calgary Stampeders director of scouting said.
“It does give you a chance to unearth some under the radar guys, which I think is the point of the CFL bringing them in. If you look back at the history of the guys that have made it from regional combines and getting drafted and having careers, they have been useful in that way.”
The regionals aren’t as expansive as the national combine. It’s a long day of physical tests and there are no official sit down interviews with GMs and team execs. You walk in that morning, put your work in, get evaluated and you walk out that afternoon knowing whether you’re moving on or not.
It’s a challenge for the players and it’s the kind of challenge that scouts love.
“Finding the third, fourth, fifth-round guys is unearthing talent. We do take pride in that, we put a lot of work into it,” Mahoney said.
“The first-round talents are obvious to a lot of people but in the later rounds you’ve got to find players that you feel can fit your system. You have to find players with very high character, players with good football knowledge. That goes to the work you’re doing behind the scenes, speaking with players personally, speaking with their coaches, just doing the background work and obviously seeing them in person, performing athletically helps a lot.”
Calgary reaped the benefits of this last year when they took receiver Julan Lynch in the second round (17th overall). Lynch impressed in Regina at last year’s West combine, then got the invite to stick around for the national combine. Toronto took advantage of the first-ever Western Regional combine to set its sights on Jermaine Gabriel, back in 2013. The Argos liked what they saw from Alberta receiver Jimmy Ralph in last year’s West Regional. He didn’t get an invite to the national combine, but they signed him as a free-agent in May. Ralph played in 16 games last year and made 26 catches for 278 yards as part of the Grey Cup-winning squad.
“He didn’t play his senior year, he was out,” Vince Magri, the Argos’ director of Canadian scouting said of Ralph.
“He used that regional combine to put himself back on the map and show that he was in shape. We’d seen him at the East-West Bowl two years prior and we’d seen him when we went in to visit Alberta. We knew he could play and seeing him at the regional after he missed his senior year validated that point, that yes, he could still play.
“Jermaine (Gabriel) was similar. He was at Bishops prior to playing junior football. Everyone knew he was talented but he was kind of off the map a little bit. When he got his opportunity he made it count.”
All three scouts agreed the process itself isn’t any different for them at the regional combines. There are no surprise names at the combines and scouts have seen tape of everyone that’s there. But with just that one day to make an impression, Magri said that everything gets evaluated in that time.
“The on-field performance is always nice but body language for me is a big thing. Having a positive attitude. Hustle between drills,” he said. “How they interact with their peers and how they interact with the people coaching them and testing them, those are the things the players might think that they’re not being evaluated on, but I can tell you probably every team in the league is evaluating them on those things.”