LANGLEY — B.C. high school football’s best night ever at the CFL draft?
No one can be sure, yet what is certain is that the eight players chosen from some of this province’s top programs is the most in over a decade.
And perhaps most inspiring of all?
Within a B.C. high school football delivery model which has continued to make strides over the past number of years, it’s an indication of the level of coaching those players were getting as far back as the 2012 and 2013 seasons of play from which they graduated.
“I think it’s great because one of the challenges you get when a (high school) player moves on to the next level is ‘Are they prepared to stay at that next level?’” said New Westminster Hyacks head coach Farhan Lalji, who on Thursday anchored TSN’s national broadcast of the 2019 CFL draft.
“More and more, we’re seeing (B.C.) players training at a high level, showing grit, and being able to bounce back from the adversity they will face over their collegiate careers,” continued Lalji. “Football mattered to them, and it has been people from our level which helped instill that in them.”
Agreed Notre Dame Jugglers head coach Denis Kelly: “From the overall improved quality of coaching, right down to taking advantage of all the clinics and the new technology, the level of sophistication is just better.”
Here then, is a look at the eight B.C. high school players drafted by CFL teams on Thursday, many of which come with personal remembrances from your faithful author during his years covering the sport for The (Vancouver) Province newspaper:
ROUND ONE (fifth overall)
JONATHAN KONGBO (6-foot-6, 264 pounds, defensive end)
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS, Tennessee Volunteers, Holy Cross Crusaders
In March of 2014, I called over to Surrey’s Holy Cross Regional Secondary and spoke with the school’s principal, Chris Blesch, a lifelong football guy, and asked him why the Crusaders’ resident basketball star had suddenly decided to play football earlier in the fall of his senior year of high school.
Of course a collegiate career at NCAA Div. 1’s Wyoming and eventually Tennessee would follow, but on that day you realized instantly that Kongbo’s accidental path to the gridiron was one of those all-time stories.
“I saw him watching football practice at the start of the season,” Blesch told me for The Province. “He was just standing by the edge of the field. I asked him if he was interested in playing, and he said he had never played before. But then after his first practice, he said, ‘That was fun.’”
Amazingly, without a shred of experience, Kongbo immediately looked like a player. He hadn’t even dedicated himself to the weight room but at 18 he was chiselled at 6-5 and 247 pounds.
And in one of the greatest portents to the future you could ever hope to find: In his first-ever football game, Kongbo recorded four straight sacks on the first four snaps of his career.
This past season at Tennessee, Kongbo suffered tears of both his ACL and MCL, and thus his pro debut with the Bombers, or perhaps even in the NFL, will be delayed until he gains full health.
His ceiling however, remains so high that he was worth the gamble.
“I think he can start at defensive end, or at the very least be a rotational guy to get in there and push the pocket,” Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters told TSN after the selection. “He’s big and strong and physical against the run and he’s got the athletic frame and the potential to grow into a starter.”
ROUND TWO (15th overall)
BRAYDEN LENIUS (6-foot-5, 230 pounds, wide receiver)
SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS, New Mexico Lobos, Carson Graham Eagles)
You’re not alone if you don’t remember him as a B.C. high school player.
Lenius, already 6-5, but some 40 pounds lighter as a Grade 11 player in the 2012 season, caught 34 passes for 573 yards and seven TDs for an Eagles team that went 4-4 and lost in the opening round of playoffs.
By the next season, however, he had transferred to Chaminade Prep in the Los Angeles area, prior to signing with the Washington Huskies. He finished his college career this past season with the Lobos where he was coached by former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie.
Said TSN draft analyst Davis Sanchez of Lenius following his selection by the Riders on Thursday: “The one thing that impressed me when I watched him at the combine, and I watched his film first… he’s a big guy. He can obviously run at his size, but when I saw him up close, how fast he got in and out of his breaks, at his size… it’s exceptional.”
ROUND THREE (21st overall)
ZACH WILKINSON (6-foot-5, 270 pounds, offensive line)
MONTREAL ALOUETTES, Northern Colorado Bears, Mt. Douglas Rams
Talking to Wilkinson back in the spring of 2014, coming off an incredible career for Victoria’s Rams in which he set the tone for the Brothers Davis-led rushing attack and starred on both sides of the line, he already seemed to have the habits of a seasoned pro.
And as he looked ahead to the next step of the journey back on NCAA National Letter of Intent Day, it was clear he wasn’t about to take anything for granted as he prepared for a career in the Big Sky Conference.
“It’s been a long road, lots of hours in the gym and on the field,” Wilkinson told me that day. “Throughout this whole experience, I realized that it was the opportunity of a lifetime and that I had to take it all in.”
All he proceeded to do was become a three-year starter with UNC’s Bears, this past season earning conference post-season all-star honourable mention status.
ROUND THREE (22nd overall)
MALEEK IRONS (6-foot, 224 pounds, running back)
HAMILTON TIGER-CATS, Ohio Bobcats, W.J. Mouat Hawks
After a patience-testing collegiate career in which he finally showed what he was capable of as a senior, the former W.J. Mouat superstar has a chance to recapture the huge momentum he took into the collegiate ranks in 2014.
In October of 2012, during his Grade 11 season at Mouat, Irons shattered the all-time B.C. high school football single-game senior varsity rushing record when he carried 47 times for 491 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-49 win over Mt. Douglas.
A number of factors limited his involvement in the offence at Ohio over the early years of career, yet this past season, Irons basically equaled or surpassed everything he had done over his first three seasons combined.
Over his first three seasons with the Bobcats, he played in 18 games, carrying 126 times for 616 yards and eight touchdowns.
This past season, he played in 11, carrying 126 times for 831 yards and eight touchdowns.
ROUND THREE (24th overall)
SHERIDEN LAWLEY (6-foot-4, 290 pounds, defensive line)
HAMILTON TIGER-CATS, UBC Thunderbirds, W.J. Mouat Hawks
While his return to Canada did not result in as impactful a season as he would have liked, the Abbotsford native earned his draft spot Thursday based on his body of work over a six-year journey since completing his senior season of high school football at Mouat in 2012.
Lawley left home at 18 to play at New Jersey’s Lawrenceville Prep in what could be called a Grade 13 season.
From there, he was recruited to NCAA Div. 1 Connecticut, where over a redshirt campaign and three active seasons, he had worked himself into the main rotation along the defensive line with the American Athletic Conference team.
Lawley could have remained at UConn for one more season but came home to finish up his collegiate career with the Thunderbirds where he appeared in just three games.
Spending five years in the U.S. chasing a professional career, Lawley has long developed what talent evaluators would have called the perfect temperament to begin life in the CFL.
ROUND FIVE (46th overall)
MALCOM LEE (6-foot-2, 200 pounds, defensive back)
CALGARY STAMPEDERS, UBC Thunderbirds, St. Thomas More Knights
There is so much talent here that the Stampeders chose Lee, despite the risk that the former STM Knight could be suspended for a full 365 days pending the results of a B-sample test for a perform-enhancing substance.
Lee was amongst the players who helped define the tough, hard-hitting nature of the UBC defence since returning to B.C. after beginning his collegiate career at NCAA Div. 1 Nevada.
The son of former SFU Clan running back Orville Lee is one of those players coaches label a pure football player.
What the Stamps will discover is that Lee is a player who brings so many intangibles to his spot in the defensive secondary.
In fact over his senior season at STM in 2013, Lee showed just that when top running back Jalen Jana and starting quarterback Chase Malcolm were both lost to the team through injury.
Lee promptly stepped in and stepped up to the task at hand.
Besides holding down the back end in the defensive secondary, he rushed 92 times for 1,044 yards and 12 touchdowns, passed for over 300 yards and three TDs and even caught 25 passes for 331 yards and five scores, with his rushing and receiving totals leading the team.
The best comparable he has in the most recent lineage of B.C. high school football?
It’s clearly Lemar Durant, the ex-SFU and Calgary receiver who is now with the B.C. Lions. Durant, due to injuries on his Centennial team, morphed to QB in his senior season and led the Centaurs to the top-tier Subway Bowl AAA title.
ROUND SEVEN (60th overall)
BRAD LYONS (6-foot-3, 250 pounds, defensive line)
B.C. LIONS, Simon Fraser Clan, Terry Fox Ravens
Few took tougher paths to Thursday night’s draft than Lyons, who a year out of high school after a failed first attempt to play collegiately at D1 South Dakota State, was back home in PoCo driving a fork-lift to put some cash in his pocket and ponder his next move.
He later played at D2 St. Cloud State in Minnesota before finally coming back home to stay in 2016, joining the SFU Clan for three character-defining seasons during which time the team won just one game.
Nonetheless, Lyons seemed to be a veteran-type leader from the moment he set foot on Fox Field and earned the respect of former head coach Kelly Bates and current head coach Thomas Ford for his perseverance to the program and its developing culture.
What could be more fitting for the gridiron vagabond then getting a chance to become a pro right here at home with the B.C. Lions.
ROUND EIGHT (69th overall)
JAMEL LYLES (6-foot 210 pounds)
B.C. LIONS, Manitoba Bisons, Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers
It is hard to remember a B.C. high school player over the last 15 years who was as unabashedly motivated to make the game his profession.
When I asked Lyles about his goals back at the start of his senior high school season with the Panthers back in the fall of 2013, he said to The Province: “I go home after school and I do my homework and then I watch motivational videos. It’s pretty funny, but when people ask me where I want to play and they say college, CFL, NFL, I tell them I want to make the NFL Hall of Fame. If you want to be the best, why not aim high? Yeah, I get a few laughs, but I don’t care. That stuff motivates me.”
Interestingly enough, B.C.’s top three AAA rushing leaders for the 2013 season were Maleek Irons (1,559), Jamel Lyles (1,484) and Malcom Lee (987), all of whom are now CFL bound.
ROUND THREE (25th overall)
CONNOR GRIFFITHS (6-foot-4, 290 pounds, defensive line)
WINNIPEG, UBC Thunderbirds, Langley Stampeders
He didn’t play high school football, yet Griffiths was coached up just superbly in the community football ranks by Langley Minor Football.
He was so effective and so important to the UBC Thunderbirds, that at the start of this past season, ‘Birds head coach Blake Nill told Varsity Letters “Right now, I think the only guy in Canada that can challenge Connor Griffiths is Mathieu Betts of Laval.”
Betts, of course, signed with the Chicago Bears as a non-drafted player last weekend. On Thursday he was not only picked third overall by Edmonton, he was named U Sports’ overall male athlete of the year.
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