Everything you may have already imagined about the voluminous work ethic of UBC Thunderbirds’ starting middle linebacker Ben Hladik is true.
And in case you had any doubt, there’s nothing like a first-hand account from an otherwise non-descript day in the dead of winter, when no one was supposed to be watching, to stoke the fires as we begin our look at B.C. high school products making their the way towards May 4 and the 2021 CFL draft.
“Vernon in winter is not the best place to be training, but I was driving past our field one day, and he and his younger brother (UBC tight end) Brad (Hladik) had shovelled off the snow to clear a strip of about 40 yards to do their sprints and all of their training,” recalled Sean Smith, the Vernon Panthers head coach who by Wednesday afternoon, was still marvelling at the resourcefulness of his former superstar player.
“Not everyone is willing to do those kinds of things,” continued Smith. “It’s a hardship, but those are the kinds of things that will make you even tougher and more resilient at the next level.”
They are also the kinds of home-spun stories pro personnel directors salivate over.
Put such litmus tests of character together with the eye-popping, chart-topping numbers that Hladik compiled at his recent virtual combine, and then consider the fact that while just 22 years of age, he and wife Kailyn are set to celebrate their first wedding anniversary this Sunday, and you have a talent mature well beyond his years.
“What I have said to scouts both in the NFL and in Canada is that Ben’s true potential will be seen through his ceiling, and I say that because his measurables are through the roof,” UBC head coach Blake Nill explained, stressing that both professional leagues have turned their gaze to the Point Grey campus to make inquiries about the 6-foot-4, 240 pounder who majored in the heart of the linebacking corps for the Thunderbirds, but was more than versatile enough to count substantial snaps at the first level as an edge rusher.
Yet when you’re talking about graduating U SPORTS linebackers, the discussion at UBC does not end with Hladik.
Two others, in fact, are also established in the eyes CFL talent evaluators.
Nick Cross, the 6-foot, 203 pounder who transferred from Regina to UBC for the 2019 Canada West season, went 16th overall to Winnipeg in the CFL.ca’s most recent mock draft.
And Elliot Graham, the 6-foot-3, 244-pounder out of Hamilton, was noted by CFL.ca. along with Hladik, for turning in impressive virtual combine numbers.
THE BEST IS YET TO COME
In Nill’s eyes, as effective as Hladik has been over the three seasons he’s spent in blue-and-gold, settling into a more permanent position as a pro will allow him to reveal his true impact.
“He’s been used primarily at middle linebacker, but we’ve also played him on the edge as basically a defensive end, and also as a weakside backer,” said Nill. “I think he plays the game so intelligently, but this is a game of reps and once he’s put in one position and given a smaller task set, that is when you’re going to see the potential of Ben Hladik really come to the fore.”
Of course nothing about life as a student-athlete was normal this past year, and while Hladik got as resourceful as he had to in order to prepare himself for the professional entry process that is just now ramping up (the three-day NFL draft begins a week today, followed three days later by the CFL draft), he wished he had a better opportunity to showcase himself to the next level.
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” said Hladik who moved back to Vernon from his UBC residence in late March of 2020, got married a month later, and has been paying the bills while working as a landscaper at a nearby military base.
“I wish I could have shown more this year on film than the last couple, but what I have been able to show has been enough that the scouts have looked into me more,” Hladik explains. “They’ve been able to interview me and really see what kind of person I am. And I have had the whole year to train to be ready and be in the best shape I have been in since I started university.”
To that end, Hladik is quick to offer thanks to his brother, his wife, his brother-in-law and especially UBC strength and conditioning coach Joe McCullum for helping him put on his virtual combine earlier this month.
Hladik feels it achieved goals in his most key areas.
“I definitely wanted to show how well I could move, because I definitely feel that’s one thing that teams wanted to see from me because I am 6-4 and 240 pounds,” he said.
Without getting into the minutiae of his combine numbers, the day was a success.
Hladik timed at 4.55 in the 40-yard dash and his shuttle and three-cone times confirmed both his dexterity and his explosion. (Full numbers here).
There were two other measureables, however, which were elite compared to the rest of the combine field nationally.
Twenty-nine reps on the bench (at the standard 225 pounds) and a 10’-7” broad jump are the kinds of dynamic statements which do much to fill in the details on any pre-draft CV.
Thosee 29 reps were the second-most to be found within the combine stats at CFL.ca, and Hladik couldn’t help but chuckle when it was pointed out that he was more than holding his own in that department against offensive linemen.
“I’ve always been a pretty strong guy and I have always loved getting into the gym,” he said, admitting 29 was his best-ever total. “I think I did 18 (reps) in high school in Grade 12. I am glad I beat all of the offensive and defensive linemen… the only guy that beat me on the bench was a guy who weighed 364 pounds.
Indeed, Calgary Dinos’ 6-foot-6, 364-pound fifth-year offensive lineman Carter Comeau produced 32 reps on the bench.
Whatever happens, all Smith knows is that championship habits are hard to miss, and that Ben Hladik showed his at a pretty young age.
“Ben has always been above his cohort in terms of his natural ability, and now when you combine that with natural strength and a work ethic that is second to none, you are seeing the results,” Smith said
“Way back when he was in high school, in Grade 12 when he won the MVP, I would watch how he studied film,” Smith concluded. “When a guy put his hand down differently at the line, he knew what would happen. He’s been studying the nuances of offensive linemen ever since.”
UBC ON DRAFT DAY
Cross and Graham gain high marks from Nill.
Said Nill of Cross: “He is, instinctually, one of the top players I have ever coached. He’s old school, goes full-speed in practice and games, and bottom line, he makes plays because of his approach.
Said Nill of Graham: “I know he’s going to get drafted and I think he’s going to play in the CFL. He’s a tough kid from Hamilton who has overcome a lot of adversity and made a name for himself. He hasn’t had the easiest path but I think he’s going to get a shot.”
Last season, the biggest news in UBC football was the fact that former offensive lineman Dakoda Shepley was able to find an NFL home with the San Francisco 49ers, seeing Week 15 action against the Dallas Cowboys.
UBC had four players selected in the 2020 CFL draft, all non-B.C. high school products.
Receiver Trivel Pinto was selected by Calgary while defensive backs Stavros Katsantonis and Jean Ventose, along with defensive lineman Tom Schniztler were picked by Hamilton.
Other UBC players listed among CFL 2021 combine participants include receivers Lliam Wishart (Kamloops-Valleyview) and Kene Ezekeke, and linebacker Isaiah Joseph (2017).
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