He’d enjoyed a Canadian Football Hall of Fame career along the offensive line of the Montreal Alouettes, and now, a few years after returning to his alma mater to begin a new one along the sidelines, he was being elevated to the role of head coach of the Saskatchewan Huskies.
Yet as Scott Flory is the first to admit of those days prior to the start of the 2017 Canada West football season: “I had never been involved in recruiting before. If they asked, I gave my two cents, but that was about it.”
In hindsight, as the one-week countdown to the CFL’s May 4 draft has arrived, maybe that was actually one of the keys.
Maybe what it took to truly see the full potential of Nelson Lokombo, the 5-foot-11, 184-pound defensive back from Abbotsford’s W.J. Mouat Secondary School, was a pair of fresh eyes.
“He was a running back at Mouat, but he played both ways,” Flory remembered by phone Monday morning from Saskatoon. “I’d known of his brother (B.C. Lions’ linebacker Boseko Lokombo), and when I started to watch his tape, I was like ‘Man, this guy can play DB.’
“He had this change of direction, and I remember saying to myself ‘He’s got hot feet,’” continued Flory. “He moved so well. I was like ‘I don’t know if this guy is going to be a tailback, but boy can he break on the ball.’ We went after him pretty hard, and I still remember the day he texted me and told me he wanted to be a Husky.”
Now, four seasons later, the most recent spent as a virtual student-athlete in the midst of the COVID pandemic, Nelson Lokombo is not only the reigning (2019) U SPORTS Defensive Player of the Year, CFL.ca‘s mock draft 2.0 published Tuesday saw his projected No. 3 overall selection to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hold form from the 1.0 mock published in late March.
And as draft day approaches, Lokombo himself admits he has gained a valuable strength through the trying times of the cancelled 2020 Canada West season.
“The abrupt ending was something everyone had to adjust to,” Lokombo, 22, said Monday of the cancelled U Sports season. “I think I was able to manage it well, and through it, I learned a lot about myself… that I would be able to handle a lot more than I thought I could throughout this whole process.”
THE REAL NELSON LOKOMBO
The cancelled 2020 season may have denied Nelson Lokombo the opportunity to show the pro scouts an even more polished version of himself.
Yet despite the unforeseeable circumstances globally, Lokombo has the reels from 2019 which show not only the flash and dash which accompany a pair of near-100 yard pick-six interception returns, but also his ability to move from a cornerback spot and embrace an entirely new position within the Huskies’ secondary as a boundary-half.
“I am grateful for the (2019) season because it gave me a different perspective, and one of the biggest things going into that season was changing my position (to boundary-half),” he said of a switch which schematically aligned him inside of the cornerback on the short side of the field, allowing him to both play in the box as a part of the front and in space against the pass.
“He has the feet and the fluidity in his hips,” Flory says of Lokombo’s ability to wear multiple hats. “He timed 4.66 in the 40 but I still think he’s faster than that. He’s kind of a low-hip runner. He has such an outstanding natural knee bend that from like 0-to-10 (yards), or 0-to-20 (yards), he is just off the charts.”
Take one look at Lokombo’s 2019 U SPORTS Defensive POY highlight video, and it’s at once apparent how his combination of dynamism and feel allow him to succeed.
His 99-yard pick-six in Saskatoon against UBC highlights his anticipation from the defensive slot, and the quality of stride which follws.
“But the biggest thing the switch did was it showed that I could play in the box as well,” said Lokombo, whose four picks and 197 return yards, along with three sacks anchored a 2019 Huskies defence which allowed the fewest points in the conference. “Before, I wasn’t a really a kid who saw myself playing anything more than corner. But afterwards, it also switched my perspective and helped me realize I could handle more than I thought I could handle.”
Added Flory: “It meant we could blitz him, we could bring him off the edge, we could just do so much more stuff with him. It elevated his game even more.”
HALL OF FAME KARMA
While Nelson Lokombo has already shown a lot, those who know him best look to his future with a smile and a glance skyward, figuratively symbolic of a ceiling yet to be reached.
And when you combine all of that potential with the humility Lokombo wears on his sleeve, he becomes the kind of asset every team wants in their program.
“The more I got to know him, the more I got to see how humble he is, and also how confident he is in his ability and his approach,” Flory began.
“Some guys in the recruiting process really feel they have to put themselves out there,” he continues. “I don’t know how to say this, but the more you get to know him, the more you see how he translates that humility on to the field. This gives him the platform to be able to express and show himself. Everyone already knows how good he is.”
Travis Bell, who coached Lokombo at Mouat for four straight seasons split between the junior and senior varsity teams, agrees.
“He was so humble, almost too humble,” Bell remembered. “And although he didn’t have his confidence early, once it grew, he still remained humble as heck. As good as he’s gotten, that is still the key piece I’ve loved the most. He was a quiet leader who led by his example.”
And as far as the positional switch which has brought the best out in Lokombo?
Flory stresses that as he and his coaching staff watched their young corner develop and mature, that a bigger plan for him was always in the works.
He adds, however, with clear kudos to football gods above, that the karma simply became too thick to ignore when one of the greatest defensive backs in CFL history engaged him in some light-hearted schematic discussion.
In March of 2018, as Flory headed to Winnipeg to be unveiled as part of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame’s latest class, he had the chance to come together with the guy who sits tied for second all-time in CFL career interceptions, and was also set for his own HOF enshrinement.
“Long story short, I am there with my good friend Barron Miles,” begins Flory of the former B.C. Lion whom he happened to be teammates with for six seasons (1999-2004) in Montreal.
“We just started spit-balling, and then he looks at me and he says ‘Please, can you just put your best guy at boundary half? Please. Can you just do that?’” remembers Flory as the conversation zeroed in on Miles’ positional group of authority.
“I was just like ‘We were already kind of gonna do it…’ and Barron didn’t know about Nelson,” Flory added. “But as I looked back on it, that talk was just a positive re-affirmation of what we needed to do, to eventually move Nelson to the position where he would win (U SPORTS) Defensive Player of the Year.”
It was a move, in fact, that had its origins back on the field at Mouat over Lokombo’s junior and senior varsity career.
“We had a decent team, but not a phenomenal one, so he didn’t get a lot of press,” Bell remembers of the group Lokombo ran with through to his Class of 2016 grad ceremony. “But I always thought he was one of the most under-rated players in his age class.
“We always matched him up against the other team’s strongest player because he could keep up with anyone,” said Bell. “He was big enough to play at linebacker, but he was also fast enough to move outside.”
Flory, who has fielded calls on Lokombo from both the NFL and the CFL over the past few weeks, knows his program is losing the kind of talent that doesn’t come along very often.
“With his work ethic, his desire, his smarts, his athleticism and his feel for the game, he will go down as one of the best football players to play in this program, if not one of the best DBs for sure,” said Flory of a player that didn’t miss a single game over his university career. “That’s a pretty high statement for a guy who only played three seasons. And we’ve had some pretty good players come through here.”
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