Sometimes life has a way of working things out exactly how you imagined. Just ask Ottawa REDBLACKS defensive back Justin Howell.
About a year ago, Howell was preparing for the Eastern Regional Combine. He was training for the biggest job interview of his life, one that if he succeeded at, would give him the opportunity to move onto the National Combine presented by New Era to prove his worth on the year’s biggest stage ahead of the CFL Draft.
Iseah Montgiraud, a track coach that was working with the 22-year-old on his preparation, had also trained REDBLACKS defensive back Antoine Pruneau. A few weeks before the regional combine, Pruneau and Howell were training with Montgiraud on the same day at Carleton University. The pair had a conversation about Howell’s upcoming combine date, not knowing that just a few months later Howell would be drafted by the REDBLACKS and become the veteran safety’s newest teammate.
“He just said, ‘go have fun,'” Howell said over the phone on Wednesday, explaining the advice that Pruneau had given him before the Eastern Regional. “(He said), ‘you know you belong there, you’re going to do well and enjoy it. It’s once in a life time experience.’”
The five-foot-nine, 199-pounder was one of four prospects that were selected from the Eastern Regional Combine to move onto the national stage last year and he was eventually was drafted by the REDBLACKS in the seventh round (55th overall) in the 2018 CFL Draft. He went on to play 13 games, making two starts, in his rookie season and collected 13 defensive tackles, including six in the Eastern Final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Bradford, Ont. native’s ‘dream-come-true’ first season in the CFL wouldn’t have been possible without a regional combine.
The CFL has three regional combines that take place every year – Eastern, Ontario and Western Regionals – giving Canadian prospects a chance to show off their skills ahead of the draft. Do well at your regional combine and either get an invitation to the national (this year’s takes place in Toronto) or hope that a scout or general manager took notice of your efforts.
Howell wasn’t originally invited to the National combine but instead was on the roster for the Eastern Regional in Montreal. Getting left off the national roster, along with not getting an invite to the East-West Bowl the year before – had put a chip on the former Carleton Raven’s shoulder. That chip helped motivate Howell to want to do the best he possibly could with the opportunity he had in front of him.
“I had a conversation with my coach at the time,'” he said, remembering what it was like when he was left off the invite list to the East-West Bowl. “And I told him that I was frustrated at the situation. I felt like I belonged there. Then we were like, ‘how are we going to get to the next level? How are we going to get you to the next level?’ Then the rosters came out and I wasn’t on the national so it was another chip on the shoulder, another chance for me to prove myself. It made me work that much harder.”
Howell went on to test exceptionally well in Montreal and earned an invite to Winnipeg for the national. He was tied for the second-best 40-yard dash time (4.58), had the day’s second-best 3-cone time (7.14) and had the second-fastest short shuttle (4.19).
“I think I was just poised going into it,” Howell remembered when asked what he impression he left on scouts and general managers. “I felt like I was going to test well and pretty much every area and I felt like that was going to set me apart. My ability to show my overall athleticism and not just one specific drill. I thought I was going to be at the top of almost every drill and for the most part I was.”
Each prospect competes in six drills at each combine – the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, 3-cone, bench press and short shuttle. Then they do individual position drills and the fan-favourite one-on-one sessions. Having the chance to do those drills twice, one at the regional and then again at the national, made things slightly less stressful.
“Having that test run was a big difference for me,” Howell said. “I felt much more relaxed going to the national knowing, as far as numbers, where I stood and stuff like that. It was definitely a relief of pressure a bit.”
In 2018, 13 players from across the country earned invites from their regional combines to Winnipeg for the national. 12 of those 13 prospects went on to be drafted and 10 are currently on CFL rosters.
While most are waiting for their chance to crack the starting lineup, suiting up mostly on special teams, Howell was able to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball for the REDBLACKS by season’s end.
“Throughout the year I saw my role with the team kind of increase slowly,” Howell said of his 2018 campaign. “My whole mindset going in was to prepare as if I was the starter even if I was buried on the depth chart.
“You never know when you’re going to get your opportunity and that ended up happening.”