March 19, 2018

O’Leary: Canadian QB Strong ready to compete at the combine

Seton Hill University

Christian Strong is hoping the last few months have been a taste of what his football future holds.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound quarterback from Brampton, Ont. graduated from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA. in December of last year. Since then, he’s been in his second home of Clearwater, Fla., working with trainers to prep for the CFL National Scouting Combine presented by adidas.

“It’s been a good feeling,” Strong said in a phone call last week. “I don’t have to balance out schoolwork with training and I don’t have to worry about classes or assignments being done. It’s a good situation I’m in here, and you can’t beat the weather here in Florida.”

If it all goes according to plan, Strong’s year will have started under a hot Florida sun and will conclude in the cold of a Canadian winter in November, on a CFL roster. Through four years with the Div II Griffins — he redshirted his freshman year — Strong showed that he could put up numbers.

From 2015 through 2017, he completed 671 of 1,176 passes for 8,656 yards, throwing 56 touchdowns against 39 interceptions. The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference is a small one, but Strong points to former Edinboro QB and current Ottawa REDBLACKS starter, Trevor Harris, as a notable alumni, as proof that the leap can be made.

“It gave me the opportunity, the school took a chance on me and gave me a great scholarship and I made the best of it,” Strong said of his time at Seton Hill.

“We had struggling years (the team went 0-11 in 2017). There were ups and downs, there was adversity, but it helped mold me into the person I am today. Being a three-year starter there, I got a ton of reps and I couldn’t ask for anything else.

“I had a great relationship with our OC (Charles Eger), the head coach (Isaac Collins), and my position coach (Christopher Haupt). They were good guys and they helped me along the way. I broke records at Seton Hill. Thank God that I was able to do all of that.

“We were the No. 1 passing offence in 2016 in all of Division II, so it was a fun time. I gained a group of friends, four or five guys that are like my brothers. It was a very fun time.”

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Strong and Noah Picton, the 2016 Hec Creighton-winning QB from the University of Regina, will be the only quarterbacks at the combine. While they’re both different presences in the pocket — Picton is five-foot-eight and 180 pounds — both are determined to go to the next level as a quarterback and nothing else.

Many Canadian quarterbacks before them have worked out at other positions at the combine and gone on to lengthy CFL careers. Mathieu Bertrand was a QB at Laval, before playing nine years with the Edmonton Eskimos at fullback. Brad Sinopoli won the Hec Creighton award in 2010 as a QB with the University of Ottawa and played the position briefly with the Calgary Stampeders, before transitioning to receiver in 2013. He was named an all-star with Ottawa in 2015 and 2017.

“I’ve always been strictly a quarterback, that’s been my position,” Strong said. “Whatever the team wants me to do, I’ll be okay with it, but I know it’ll be quarterback at the next level.”

Strong’s exposure to football has been primarily on the American side. He was born in Ottawa but lived in Florida until he was 12. His father, Christopher, a former Canadian golf pro, had a football in his son’s hands from an early age. From the time he started playing Pop Warner football at the age of eight, Strong loved the quarterback position.

“I love everything that it entails,” he said. “You’re the leader of the offence, you’re the field general out there, you’re in control. I love that feeling. It is a lot of pressure, but it’s also a chance for you to encourage guys around you and really form great relationships as well.”

His father’s work had the family in Brampton from the time Strong was 13 to 17, which is when he got his first exposure to both playing Canadian football and seeing it on TV. He went back to Florida as a high school senior, hoping for more exposure and scholarship offers. He was on his way, playing at Countryside High School in Clearwater, when his 5-1 team hit a snag. The school was fined and had to forfeit its games because Strong was ruled ineligible.

“There was a lack of communication and a misunderstanding with paperwork issues,” Strong said.

“It could have been resolved if it had been given to me at the correct time to make the deadline. I’m not going to point fingers…it happened and I was deemed ineligible. I still thank God every day that Seton Hill gave me the opportunity that they did, that they believed in me. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I could have gone to maybe a bigger school but who knows if I would have seen the field before my senior year?”

Regina’s Noah Picton is one of two Canadian pivots trying to impress at the national combine (Piper Sports Photography)

Off the field, Strong came to feel those QB traits as he pursued his major of journalism at Seton Hill.

Through his 4.5 years on campus, he went from a contributor at his school paper, the Setonian, to editor in chief in 2016-17. Juggling school, football and what amounted to a demanding work-experience job running the paper, he learned how to juggle his responsibilities and how to maximize every minute of his days.

“I know that football is a temporary thing. Even if you make a career in football and I can become a quarterback for a professional team, at some point it’s going to come to an end and you want to fall back to what you did in university or college,” he said.

For now, thoughts of assignments, stories and deadlines are on hold. After taking part in a NFL pro day in Pittsburgh last week, his focus is now solely on the CFL.

“I’m excited, I’m thankful for the opportunity. I get to come back to my home country of Canada and perform in front of Canadian scouts. I look forward to that. It’s been a dream to come back up to Canada and play in the CFL,” he said “I’m thankful for it and I can’t wait. I’m excited. All of the hard work’s going to pay off.”