March 23, 2021

O’Leary: Get to know these five Combine participants

Photo: James Hajjar

The 2021 CFL Combine presented by New Era will be a unique one that we all hope will stand alone in history.

Participants are competing virtually this year, submitting their drills by video with teams from across the CFL eager to see what they can learn about Canada’s top prospects. The evaluation process will be laced with challenges. U SPORTS athletes didn’t have a 2020 season and the Canadian NCAA players that were able to play may have dealt with game cancellations and a routine that was a far departure from the one that they’d grown accustomed to through their football-playing lives.

Fans are in a similar boat as talent evaluators this year and may feel a little out of the loop when it comes to gauging how the players stack up and who might best fill their team’s needs in the coming Draft. With that in mind, we take a look at five interesting players to watch while we wait for virtual combine results to registered.

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A force on the Montreal Carabins’ offensive line, Pier-Olivier Lestage has fought through a challenging year to chase his pro dream (Photo: James Hajjar)

Pier-Olivier Lestage, OL, Montreal

The highest-ranked U SPORTS player in the winter edition of the CFL’s Scouting Bureau (10th), Lestage has the potential to be an impact player in the CFL, if he isn’t on an NFL roster this year. The 23-year-old made his way down to the States for the East-West Shrine game this winter and took part in the Tropical Bowl and the College Gridiron Showcase in Texas in an effort to get on the radar of NFL scouts. If that doesn’t pan out, the six-foot-three, 295-pound guard will look back to Canada, where he still has a year of eligibility with the Carabins and would be a coveted pick by any of the nine CFL clubs. A second-team All-Canadian in 2019, Lestage oozes promise. We don’t know what might happen for him in the NFL, but he certainly has three-down football options in Canada.

Nelson Lokombo, DB, Saskatchewan

The brother of BC Lions linebacker Bo Lokombo, Nelson came in at No. 19 on the Scouting Bureau rankings.

“I’ve always been inspired by my brother, so having a guy that’s in the CFL and that is a CFL vet is huge,” Nelson told reporters in January about his inspiration and training partner.

“We’ve been doing mostly on-field work, increasing speed. Doing some sand work, some hills and talking about the game too. We’ll sit down together and watch some games. He’ll show me some of the games and the concepts and how to prepare and manage. So he’s been really big to have.”

In 2019 with the Huskies, Nelson had 19 tackles, three sacks, four interceptions and four pass breakups, en route to being named Canada West’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player and a Canada West All-Star. If he can play with the tenacity and physicality that Bo brings week-in and week-out, Nelson is in position for a long and productive CFL career.

Seen here looking like a man amongst boys, Logan Bandy could offer excellent protection to CFL QBs for years to come (Photo: University of Calgary)

Logan Bandy, OL, Calgary

If you’re looking for a player that could be impactful at the next level, why not take a look at the tackle of a Vanier Cup-winning team? The Dinos won a national championship in 2019 and Bandy — a two-time second-team All-Canadian — was there, controlling the action in the trenches with his six-foot-five, 295-pound frame. After missing out on what would have been his fourth season with the Dinos in 2020, Bandy decided to enter the CFL Draft this year.

“I think it was the best decision for me,” Bandy told reporters in January. “I think that I’m ready, I’m prepared and it’s the best opportunity for me to go and achieve my dream of playing pro football. So that’s the way I looked at it.”

Bandy, a Calgary native, is the highest-ranked Canada West player in the winter edition of the CFL Scouting Bureau’s rankings at 16.

Bryce Bell, OL, Wilfrid Laurier University

The six-foot-four, 290-pound right tackle cracked the Scouting Bureau rankings for the first time in the winter edition, after earning an East-West Bowl invite before the pandemic led to its cancellation. While his hope would be to stick with a CFL team this season, he does have eligibility remaining and could return to the Golden Hawks for more development if a team thought he needed it. Adaptable and hard-working — he’s put on 60 pounds since his freshman year — Bell learned with the Golden Hawks that he’s more than willing to put in the work to see its rewards pay off in the years that follow.

Luther Hakunavanhu, York, WR

Hakunavanhu led the Lions in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2019, while putting in special teams work (he had eight tackles) on the side. The six-foot-four, 198-pound Edmonton native has grown into one of the team’s top receivers since his freshman year in 2017. He has the size to play in the CFL and will look to convince teams that he has the speed, hands and toughness, both physically and mentally to stick at the next level.

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