Duane Forde scanned the long rosters of the East-West Bowl and you could hear the excitement in his voice.
“I’ve felt for a long time that in terms of the sporting landscape of Canada that Canadian university sports in general, and obviously, football being the thing I’m closest to, I think is this hidden gem. It’s this incredibly underexposed sports commodity,” Forde, a longtime TSN CFL analyst, former CFL player and Western Mustang said.
“You don’t want it to be forgotten. Obviously, when you take the CFL out of the mix for a year I think that affects the profile of university football as well, let alone the fact that they weren’t playing themselves.
“So I think it for sure is important to show that this is still strong and that people are still committed.”
There is, of course, no East-West game to be played in 2021, with the pandemic digging in its heels and forcing its cancellation for the second year in a row. But to even see a list of these promising U SPORTS athletes getting recognized and taking their place in the process of evaluation and becoming the next group of players that people will look to to fill future CFL rosters feels significant to Forde.
We’ve seen Canadian players get heaps of attention in the U.S. for their recent success in the NFL (Chase Claypool) and NCAA (Chuba Hubbard, Josh Palmer and Jevon Holland, to name a few). Forde stresses at every chance he gets that the talent pool is deeper than just the names that go south to play.
“There are so many good players. The improvement of the quality, the depth of talent of Canadian players being produced in this country isn’t limited to the fact that there are more guys going to the NCAA,” Forde said. “It’s also in the fact that the guys playing U SPORTS football are so much better than they were (in the past) and as much as I hate to say it, that we were, a generation ago.”
Forde points to the success that the Laval Rouge et Or have enjoyed, playing in seven Vanier Cups in the previous decade and winning five times. The team also won five more national titles between 1999 and 2008. That’s forced the rest of the country’s programs to play catch up. As U SPORTS programs have gotten better, so too has coaching at the grassroots level, allowing players to develop faster at a younger age. That’s led to players catching the eyes of NCAA scouts and the overall level of the university game in Canada elevating as well.
Forde made that same point — that these new CFL Draft classes are better than previous ones and even the one he came out of in 1991 — on TSN’s broadcast of last week’s CFL Draft.
“As a Canadian kid, I would think you don’t feel like there (are obstacles),” he said. “You kind of feel like you can push the envelope a little bit and you’re seeing more and more guys do that.”
When he looks at this list that runs 110 players deep, he sees plenty of athletes with that mentality. Wednesday’s announcement of the rosters highlighted two players, in Waterloo QB Tre Ford and Saskatchewan Huskies RB Adam Machart. For consistency’s sake, we’ll start with them.
“Tre Ford at Waterloo is an interesting guy at quarterback,” Forde said.
“He’s a guy who probably fits in terms of style of play and what his athletic abilities are. He’s a guy who I would say fits in the CFL mold. He would have been in this past draft class, but he was one of the players that deferred.
“To me he’s probably the next U SPORTS quarterback that comes into the discussion. At the very least, it’s the Brad Sinopoli discussion, that you draft him in hopes that he can play quarterback and if he can’t, he’s still a real good athlete that can probably play somewhere else.”
In the 2019 season, Machart set a Huskies team rushing record with 1,610 yards and led the nation in rushing as part of a campaign that saw him be named Canada West player of the year, a U SPORTS First-Team All-Canadian and a Canada West First-Team All-Star.
Both players were finalists for the Hec Crighton trophy as regular-season MVP.
Having worked so many CFL Drafts for TSN and in being an avid supporter of amateur football across the country, Forde has become a stockpile of knowledge on the game at every level. He saw dozens of promising names as he scrolled his way through the rosters of the 2021 East-West teams. Here are a few that jumped out to him.
From Timberlea, N.S. to Rice and back
Offensive lineman Gregor MacKellar caught Forde’s attention quickly when he looked at the rosters.
“He’s a kid that’s from out east that spent his first year at Rice down in Texas and ended up coming back to play at St. FX,” Forde said of the six-foot-five, 305-pound o-lineman in in his third year of eligibility.
“He’s a kid that would have been a top-10 recruit in the country coming out of high school. He’s a very high-end guy in that regard. Great size, obviously, the size that would have attracted Div. I scouts at that time. I’m kind of curious to see how he’s progressed.”
A few talented young receivers
Coming off of a Draft year that was low on receivers selected, Forde sees a few promising ones in the East-West rosters.
“Nolan Lovegrove at the U of T (95.3 yards per game)…he and (the University of Calgary’s) Jalen Philpot (95.9 yards per game), both of them as young guys were in the top-five in the country in receiving in 2019,” Forde said. Philpot was fourth, while Lovegrove placed fifth.
“To kind of put it in perspective, in the top-25 in the country in receiving in 2019, there were only three kids from this past draft class because it was mostly fourth- and fifth-year guys in the top-25.
“Now you’ve got two kids in the top-five in this class. Gordon Lam from Waterloo (82.1 yards per game) would be another one, he would have been 11th.”
Junior footballer making a mark at U SPORTS
One name that Forde felt he had to mention was University of Alberta defensive back Jayden Dalke. The second-year player built his reputation playing junior football with the Edmonton Wildcats before landing with the Golden Bears for the 2019 season.
“I haven’t seen this kid play a lot, but it’s just one of those players that has kind of been on the radar. I just know that he played a bunch of years of junior football in Edmonton and I know he’s been one of the top players in the country in junior,” Forde said.
He was third on the Bears in tackles in 2019, with 44.5 and led the team with three interceptions and six pass breakups. He also added a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
And of course, some love for Western
It’s hard to call it bias when the Mustangs are continually one of the top programs in the country, but Forde is a proud alumni and made sure to mention a pair of names from his alma mater.
“I don’t want to do too much Western propaganda on you, but I do know that they’ve got a couple of offensive linemen that are both pretty good, in Zach Fry and Spencer Hood,” Forde said.
“Fry in particular is among the top linemen in the country.”