March 5, 2024

O’Leary: Jordan Williams stands as a combine success story

Kevin Sousa/

When the 76 participants in Friday’s CFL Invitational Combine take to the turf at the University of Waterloo, they’ll have a perfect player to emulate.

It will be almost four years to the day that Jordan Williams stole the show at what was then known as the Ontario Regional Combine. He later went on to become the top pick in the 2020 CFL Draft and emerged from the cancelled 2020 season to win the 2021 Most Outstanding Rookie award with the BC Lions. Headed into his fourth CFL season he has 229 career tackles in 46 games and will suit up for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, after the Toronto Argonauts traded him in January. The Invitational Combine, as it’s known now, has plenty of success stories but none of them are like Williams’.

“I came in there with something to prove,” Williams said this past week. Having been out of football for a year after learning in 2019 that his National status would be an advantage for him in the CFL, he went into the facilities at the University of Toronto that day knowing his football future hung in the balance.

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“Going into 2020…I felt that my name somehow vanished from the football industry. Usually when my name is on something like in college, or something (it’s there) at the top of the list, highlighted, showing what college I went to, or my accolades and things of that nature.”

That morning in Toronto, he was a name on a list.

“When I saw my name on the regional combine, it was like, damn near last. Like, I was a regular,” he laughed. “It was all or nothing. My mindset was I had to be the best best version of myself that day. And that’s what my testing numbers proved.”

Williams’ 4.48-second 40-yard dash and his 10-feet, 8.5-inch broad jump were the best of the day. His 39-inch vertical leap was second behind Kian Schaffer-Baker‘s 40. He placed fifth in the short shuttle (4.40 seconds). Williams walked out of that combine as a can’t-miss prospect.

“We were somewhat fortunate because we had a little bit of information on him prior to the combine,” recalled Ticats’ general manager Ed Hervey, who held the same role in BC in 2020. He and the Lions traded up from the No. 3 spot with the Calgary Stampeders, ensuring they’d get Williams first overall. It marked the first of two times that Hervey would swing a deal to get Williams on his roster.

The linebacker first crossed paths with Lions’ head coach Rick Campbell at the REDBLACKS’ open tryout in 2019. Upon learning that Williams’ mother had Canadian citizenship, Campbell urged him to go the National route. A year later, Hervey, a freshly-hired Campbell and the Lions were sold on him as the top pick.

“We started breaking down the film watching him and he was everything we’d want in a linebacker, regardless of his background,” Hervey said.

“He’s proven every year why he belongs in this league.”

Williams knew what was at stake when he took part in the Ontario Regional Combine in 2020. He was later chosen first overall in the 2020 CFL Draft (Chris Tanouye/

Williams and the other participants in the Ontario Regional Combine felt fortunate to finish out the day. They went into the combine that morning having watched the NBA shut down the night before due to concerns over COVID-19, with stay-at-home mandates following shortly after. The CFL would cancel its remaining regional combines in 2020, along with the CFL Combine presented by New Era. Williams’ showing in Toronto ended up standing as some of the freshest tape that teams across the league would have in their evaluation period.

“I’m definitely blessed to be able to go and have that combine, the only one of that year, after being out of football for so long. That was needed,” Williams said. “To be honest, I don’t even know where I would be if I didn’t have that combine. They didn’t even know my weight, they thought I was coming in at 235, but I came in at 219. That should let you know how much that combine helped me back in 2020.”

The combine format changed last year, with players from across the country meeting Friday in Waterloo for one single event instead of three regional tryouts. The outcome remains the same, though. Only a select number of athletes will advance from Friday’s event with an invite to the CFL Combine presented by New Era, held from March 19-24 in Winnipeg.

Williams’ advice to this year’s Invitational participants is to the point and effective.

“Go in there with the mindset that it’s all or nothing, because it could literally be nothing. That could be the last time you grace the field, to showcase your talents in front of all the GMs, all the coaches, so you’ve got to go as hard as you can and just be yourself,” he said.

“If that’s not good enough, then so be it. You can live with that if you’re being yourself. If you’re trying to be an imposter and you go out there and be somebody that you’re not and you end up getting cut, then you’re going to have some regret. Be yourself and try your hardest.”

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