Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool (11) gets past Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Addison (97) during the first half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeffrey T. Barnes 

COVID-19 pandemic forced a shift of Canada’s football focus to south of the border

COVID-19 pandemic forced a shift of Canada’s football focus to south of the border

The COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on tackle football in Canada in 2020, but it didn’t stop Canadians from shining on the field of play.

The novel coronavirus forced the CFL, U Sports and junior ranks to all cancel their seasons. So that shifted Canada’s football focus to the U.S., where many Canadians have made significant contributions in both the NFL and NCAA ranks.

Chase Claypool has led the charge. The six-foot-four, 238-pound Abbotsford, B.C., native., a 2020 NFL second-round pick out of Notre Dame, had 50 catches for 664 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers along with two rushing TDs entering Monday night’s game versus Cincinnati.

On Sunday, Dallas long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur, a 39-year-old Montreal native in his 16th NFL season, played in his 251st career game, the most ever by a Canadian, in the Cowboys’ 41-33 win over San Francisco.

Chuba Hubbard, a six-foot, 208-pound redshirt junior running back, was American college football’s rushing leader last year with 2,094 yards and 21 TDs at Oklahoma State. The Sherwood Park, Alta. native returned to school this year, running for 625 yards on 133 carries (4.7-yard average) with five TDs while battling injuries before opting out to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft.

Still, Hubbard and teammate Amen Ogbongbemiga, a redshirt senior linebacker at OSU from Calgary, were among four Canadians named to the second All-Big 12 squad. The six-foot-one, 235-pound Ogbongbemiga has 76 tackles (47 solo, five for a loss) with 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries this season.

Also selected were West Virginia teammates Alonzo Addae and Akheem Mesidor. Addae, a five-foot-11, 195-pound redshirt senior cornerback from Pickering, Ont., was tied for second on the team in tackles with 61 (33 solo, 0.5 for a loss) with a forced fumble and two interceptions while Mesidor, a six-foot-two, 268-pound freshman defensive lineman from Ottawa, registered a squad-high five sacks with 29 tackles (17 solo, 6.5 for a loss).

Then there’s John Metchie III of Brampton, Ont., a sophomore receiver who had 44 catches for 782 yards and six TDs as a first-year starter for top-ranked Alabama (11-0). Metchie recorded four catches for 62 yards in the Tide’s 52-46 SEC title win win over Florida on Saturday, but made the highlight reel for levelling Gators defender Mac Jones on a first-quarter interception that forced a fumble recovered by Alabama receiver Devonta Smith.

On the next play, Smith’s 31-yard TD grab put Alabama ahead 14-7. Alabama will face Notre Dame in a national semifinal on Jan. 1.

Other notable Canadian accomplishments include:

— Iowa left tackle Alaric Jackson, a six-foot-six, 315-pound senior from Windsor, Ont., being named a first-team All Big-10 selection.

— Chase Brown, a five-foot-11, 195-pound junior running back from London, Ont., at Illinois, securing third-team All-Big 10 honours. He ran for a team-high 540 yards on 104 carries (5.2-yard average) with three TDs while adding seven receptions for 64 yards.

— Toronto’s Mohamed Diallo, a six-foot-four, 305-pound defensive lineman at Central Michigan, being an All-MAC first-team nominee after recording 19 tackles (nine solo, 9.5 for a loss), three sacks, a forced fumble in five games.

— Sidy Sow, a six-foot-five, 336-pound junior offensive lineman from Bromont, Que., at Eastern Michigan (2-4), being named to the All-MAC third team.

— Ajou Ajou, a six-foot-three, 215-pound freshman receiver from Brooks, Alberta, cracking the roster at No. 2 Clemson (10-1). The Tigers face Ohio State in the other NCAA semifinal on Jan. 1.

“I’ve been able to see the arc of that develop over the last decade and certainly over the last three years we’ve seen a steep increase in terms of the number of players in skilled positions in Division 1 football really break out,” said Jim Mullin, the president of Football Canada, the sport’s governing body in this country. “It used to be where we were just sending offensive linemen and kickers to the NCAA but that’s not the case any more.

“By our last count there’s 103 Canadians in Division 1 football. You’ve got players like Chase Claypool and Chuba Hubbard but also a long, long list that goes on from there that are competing and doing well and making a name for not just themselves but also football in Canada.”

Mullin credits improved coaching in Canada as one reason for the influx. But while Claypool, Hubbard and Ogbongbemiga all played high-school football in Canada, more and more Canucks are heading south for part or all of their high-school careers to enhance their college opportunities.

“I think it says at least with kids coming into the system at an earlier age that the coaching support that the football community tries to provide at a volunteer basis has got a lot better,” Mullin said. “Players like a Claypool or Hubbard decide to stay in the country all the way through their high-school years before they go on to the NCAA and have done a good job of getting the word out about themselves in the recruiting derby.

“Others leave to go to schools or academies in the U.S. that give them more opportunities. We’d certainly like to retain these players in Canada … but they’re still products of this country and this system and we’re equally proud of what they’re doing at the NCAA level as well.”

But as impressive as Canadians have been this year in the U.S., Mullin said it’s imperative the CFL, U Sports and junior football all resume in 2021.

“What’s really important is to get back on to the field and re-establish the tradition of the game in this country.” he said. “Tradition is something that’s our major strength and football in the summer professionally and in the fall, through not just university but also junior football, is a calling for many communities across this country.

“To not have that, in my mind, makes us a little bit less of a nation.”

To that end, Laval head coach Glen Constantin is proposing a university football jamboree in May that would bring together the host Rouge et Or along with Western, McMaster, Montreal, Saskatchewan and defending-champion Calgary.

“I applaud what Glen is trying to achieve,” Mullin said. “He’s attempting to get players on the field, get them showcased for the CFL draft and start developing momentum as we go into the summer.”

The pandemic has also forced many Canadian minor organizations to either shelve their 2020 plans or shift them to include flag and touch football. Mullin said while some provinces managed to field tackle programs, the pandemic forced them to play games with six- and nine-men aside.

But Mullin said the pandemic has also resulted in more dialogue between football organizations. Earlier this year, Football Canada, the CFL, U Sports and Canadian Football Officials Association all met and among the subjects discussed was the potential alignment of the Grey Cup, Vanier Cup, and Canadian Bowl for junior football

More sessions will take place in 2021.

“What’s been very positive is the football community reaching out looking for answers from people they’d normally not have conversations with and we’ve generated many new ideas,” Mullin said. “What I like about what Glen’s doing is he’s thinking outside of the box and that’s a good thing for football in that we’ve got communities across this country who’re now thinking outside of the box.

“I think in terms of changing the culture through this pandemic, it’s actually been a huge positive for us that I believe we can build on coming through this time.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2020.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press