O’Leary: ECU’s Jordan Williams could be on the cusp of draft history

When he was making his way across the border and into Toronto for the Ontario regional combine last month, Jordan Williams couldn’t have pictured the way that things were about to work out for him.

While the regional combine is a gateway to the CFL for many off the radar Canadians, the only thing guaranteed to its participants is that the journey — if it’s even successfully made — will be a steep uphill climb.

Williams was physically dominant that day in March, posting the best 40-yard dash (4.48 seconds) and showing a 39-inch vertical while going for 20 reps on the bench press and recording a 10-foot, 8.5-inch broad jump. He might have known he could produce those kinds of numbers but he couldn’t have known that he was riding out the final hours of the sports world coming to a halt thanks to a global pandemic.

Later that day, the remaining two regional combines were cancelled, along with the national combine. The CFL draft suddenly became one that would have to rely on what scouts had previously seen, on game tape and on word of mouth from players’ coaches, teammates and trainers.

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Except for Williams, who emerged from the Ontario regional as a standout with the freshest tape and evaluation in this draft class.

With that, he might be poised to make some history on Thursday.

Jermaine Gabriel holds the distinction of being the highest-drafted regional combine participant. The Argos took the Toronto-born free safety 17th overall in the 2013 CFL Draft. Since 2013, 74 players have been invited from regional combines to the national and 56 of them have been drafted. Fifty of them are still active in the CFL today.

Williams, a three-year starting linebacker at East Carolina University, just might separate himself from all of them if he goes in the first-round.

That’s not a guarantee; nothing is when it comes to draft speculation. But Williams’ name has become top-heavy in the weeks after his regional combine appearance. He debuted at No. 8 in the Scouting Bureau’s final rankings last week. He sat at the No. 1 spot in John Hodge’s mock draft at 3DownNation and in his final mock draft, CFL.ca’s Marshall Ferguson had Williams also going at No. 1; that’s substantially higher than the 11 spot he had him in his first mock draft.

Williams’ name floated close to the top of the conversation again on Tuesday when the CFL hosted a conference call with a pair of draft experts, in TSN’s Duane Forde and TSN 1150 and CFL.ca draft guru Marshall Ferguson.

“If he is not there I think the name that everyone is bandying about…is Jordan Williams,” Ferguson said.

“The reason I think it’s such a good fit is because…he is significantly more athletic, if you want to just look head-to-head, than Alex Singleton. Cory Greenwood did a good job (at middle linebacker) in Calgary but to be able to have a real, true, angry downhill middle linebacker that plays as physically as (Williams) does, is as excited to join the CFL as he is, that combination to me…he’s such a great pick for them.

“If (Williams is) there he’s going to be there for years and he could be really good for years, based on what we’ve seen at Eastern Carolina.”

On the call on Tuesday, Forde wasn’t as sold on the idea of Williams going first overall but is still intrigued by the linebacker.

“He’s as explosive an athlete as you’re going to find at the linebacker position,” Forde said on TSN this week.

“He’s a guy who, because of his background, people are going to compare to Alex Singleton, a guy who was being looked at as an American linebacker until they found out that he could get Canadian citizenship. That’s what makes him eligible for this draft.

“But really it’s that athleticism that separates him from other linebackers in the class.”

In a normal year, where he would have gone against the best of the Canadian best at the national combine, maybe Williams’ stock would have come back down to Earth somewhat. Or, maybe he would have gone back into the national combine and done the exact same things and poured some fuel on the fire he created at the regional combine.

As long as the five-foot-11, 218-pounder goes somewhere between Calgary’s No. 1 pick and Toronto’s ninth overall (anywhere before 17th overall, technically) he’ll make history as the highest-chosen regional combine participant ever. In a strange year where sport has suffered greatly, Williams is a bright spot and stands to be a fascinating story on draft day.