The UBC Thunderbirds have sent players to the Canadian Football League at every position imaginable, yet after Thursday’s draft proceedings were complete, it was pretty hard to not call them Linebacker U.
Three Thunderbirds linebackers had their names called, including a homegrown product that UBC head coach Blake Nill could not hold back his praise of.
“His ceiling is so high, I think the B.C. Lions got the steal of the draft,” said Nill of linebacker Ben Hladik, the former Vernon Panthers star who went on to become a two-time All-Canadian in blue-and-gold.
“I thought he was going to go in the Top 14, and I thought B.C. was going to take him with their second pick,” continued Nill of the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Hladik, who was tabbed to go fourth overall in the CFL’s most recent mock draft after finishing 13th nationally in tackles (48.5) in 2019, but was surprisingly available for the Lions with the fourth pick of the third round, No. 22 overall.
“On his size and measurables alone (29 reps on the bench and a 4.55 40-yard dash), the numbers he put up, and then the character he’s shown…” continued Nill. “He’s the home province kid, the pick that can help the entire organization. He’s going to help them on the field, help them sell tickets, and help them build B.C. football. It was a great job for the Lions to recognize that, and they were lucky to get him that late.”
Hladik was actually sandwiched in between a pair of fellow ‘Birds backers, as Regina Rams’ transfer Nick Cross was selected on the final pick of the first round, ninth overall by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and Hamilton native Elliott Graham with the second pick of the fourth round, 29th overall, by the Calgary Stampeders.
Cross, the 6-foot, 200-pounder, led all of U Sports in tackles with 66.5 tackles in 2019, but later suffered an ACL injury of which he is said to be near-100 per cent healed.
“I believe he’s the top player in the country this year,” said Nill. “His instincts are incredible and what separates him are those instincts and his motor. He just goes full speed every play and I just don’t see a lot of that in most young men.”
TSN draft analyst Duane Forde sung Cross’ praises, noting that for all of his potential, he has the ability to step in in Year 1 and make an impact on special teams.
“He’s listed as a linebacker, but he’s a guy whose primary position in the Canadian Football League will be at free safety,” said Forde. “Incredibly high football IQ. He has the versatility to do different things.”
Making it a UBC linebacking trio was hard-nosed Hamilton native Graham, whom Nill labeled as something of a “later bloomer.”
“But you know what?” Nill continued of the future Stampeder, “he can do anything that the guys picked before him can do. I really believe Elliott Graham is going to stick.”
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