May 31, 2019

O’Leary: Opportunity awaits for Canadian pivots in CFL

MontrealAlouettes.com

Clay Sequeira thought he was fluent in the language of football.

Going into his fourth year as a quarterback with the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues, Sequeira’s life has been intertwined with the game. His brother, Colin, was a quarterback for the Concordia Stingers. Another brother, Evan, played defensive back at Queen’s.

The commerce major from Pierrefonds, Que. went into his internship with the Toronto Argonauts with about as strong a football mind as a university student could have.

“It’s starting to get clear to me. It’s starting to make sense,” Sequeira said at the end of a practice last week.

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Sequeira stands with James Franklin during training camp in Toronto (Argonauts.ca)

“I’ll admit the first couple of days was like learning a new language. Honestly, it was like Chinese. It was like something I’d never seen before. Now finally, I’ve opened my mind to it and it’s starting to make sense, which is really good.”

Sequeira is one of nine U SPORTS quarterbacks taking part in the Canadian Quarterback Internship Program, which pairs the nation’s top quarterbacks with CFL teams for a portion of their training camps. The program turns 10 this spring, but this year has something of a different feel to it.

The newly-ratified collective bargaining agreement has brought a long-awaited change to the status of the Canadian quarterback. A team that starts a national QB will have that player count as one of the seven national players required to be on the field with the offence. Were he to exit the game, a Canadian player would have to replace him somewhere in the offence.

That change is especially felt at Argos camp. James Franklin has already been announced as the starter, but GM Jim Popp has loaded his quarterback room with Canadian content. Brandon Bridge and Noah Picton were signed over the winter and Michael O’Connor was taken in the third round of the Canadian draft, earlier this month. Sequeira walking into the room as an intern has brought the Canadian QB count temporarily up to four.

Bridge, a 27-year-old from Mississauga going into his fifth season in the CFL, had lobbied the league over the last two years to make the change.

“When (the CBA) got ratified, a couple of the (player’s association) reps said it was The Brandon Bridge Rule,” he said after a strong showing in the Argos’ pre-season win over Montreal.

“I saw Montreal have a Canadian quarterback (Chris Merchant) out there. I was rooting for him even though he was on the other team. I want to see Canadian content play. When Michael (O’Connor) was out there he had my full support, same with Noah (Picton). When all the quarterbacks were out there they had my full support, but when they have the Canadian (status) it’s special.”

Bridge and O’Connor are pictured after the Argos pre-season win over Montreal (Shannon Vizniowski/CFL.ca)

The Montreal Alouettes have a pair of Canadian QBs on their roster. They signed Laval’s Hugo Richard and Merchant, from Western, to two-year contracts this off-season. Both are Vanier Cup MVPs.

“You can tell that there are Canadian quarterbacks out here that can ball and I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Sequeira said of the new status of the quarterback.

For a decade, we’ve watched the top QBs in the country put their time in with a CFL team through training camp then go back to their U SPORTS teams, with very few finding their way onto a roster, let alone a training camp spot.

In recognizing a Canadian QB as a Canadian player, it could change how GMs across the league look at these players.

“I think there is an avenue now for Canadian quarterbacks to succeed and pursue the CFL where otherwise they probably wouldn’t have seen that as an opportunity,” Sequeira said.

“As a Canadian you kind of grow up watching the CFL but I see it now, it’s definitely something that’s on my mind more now than it ever was before.”

O’Connor knows the ins and outs of the internship program, having spent time at two camps with the BC Lions and one prior with the Argos before they drafted him.

“I think it’s a big step for Canadian quarterbacks. It’s fair, right? Every other position counts toward (the ratio), so I think it’s fair that Canadian quarterbacks count,” he said.

“That being said I’m just trying to make the roster. That will help but definitely I don’t want to solely rely on that. I think it’s fair now and I think it’s positive for quarterbacks moving forward.”

In Hamilton, Waterloo quarterback Tre Ford has been going through a learning curve similar to Sequeira’s. He’s studied Ticats’ starter Jeremiah Masoli closely and while the physical reps aren’t available to him in practice, he’s taking it all in mentally.

“You have to get used to the vocabulary, the terminology they use. Words we use (at Waterloo) are different than what we use here, so you have to put that together,” he said.

“The other thing you notice when you get on the field is the speed. It’s a much faster game.”

“When all the quarterbacks were out there they had my full support, but when they have the Canadian (status) it’s special.”

Argos QB Brandon Bridge

Ford participated in the Tiger-Cats training camp this year (Ticats.ca)

For a quarterback that still has a ton of university football in front of him, the change at the CFL level hasn’t registered with him yet.

“I definitely feel like there’s more opportunity for Canadian quarterbacks,” he said. “But I don’t want to get drafted because I’m a Canadian quarterback. I just want to get drafted because I’m the quarterback they want.

“I think as long as I play to the level that I know I can I’ll eventually get a chance. It’s a good thing but it hasn’t really crossed my mind. It’s not impacting how I feel or how I play.”

Argos coach Corey Chamblin sees the change with quarterbacks as an important step toward the quality of future Canadian players improving.

“I think it’ll lead to development. More than anything else I think they’ll have a hope that they can play,” he said.

“If Brandon Bridge is the first in a long time, it’s hard to keep that drive and passion alive, thinking it’s an opportunity that’s reachable.

“I think it’d be good for the league. It is the Canadian Football League and and the centrepiece of any football team is the quarterback.”

“I don’t want them to have the same barriers that I went through. I want them to have an easier path,” Bridge said. “Now that the CBA is changed I’m sure that teams will invest a little more to Canadian quarterbacks.”