BY JARRETT RUSNAK
TORONTO – “I like that kid! Point him in the direction of something green and he’ll blow it up!”
It’s something I overheard Bobby Jurasin, say to offensive guard, Pooch Hendrickson, during the Roughriders’ training camp in 1997. He was talking about Dan Comiskey, the team’s 6th round draft selection that year.
Scan the list of names of 6th round draft picks in the CFL over the past decade or two, and you’ll see a vast empty wasteland of forgotten players who never saw the field beyond a few exhibition games.
Comiskey went on to have a 12-year, all star career. He played in four Grey Cup games and won two as a member of the Edmonton Eskimos.
I was in camp as the Roughriders’ ‘Super-duper Chief Executive Director in Charge of Film Personnel’ that year. Came up with the title myself. I was responsible for shooting practice video, then distributing footage to the various coaches.
The best thing about that gig, was that I could hang out with the coaching staff as easily as I could with the players. I was able to see the game from a variety of perspectives. Held on to that gig for years and I wish I would have kept some kind of a journal about it. I saw a lot of things.
One of the things I remember seeing during that time was the parade of high draft picks, from every team, who came and went over the years. If the 6th round is a dirge of forgotten names, the 1st and 2nd rounds aren’t a whole lot better. Google the drafts over the past decade or more. For every Scott Schultz, there are three Ian Williams. There seems to be a lot of fickleness to the high rounds.
“You’re right,” began John Hufnagel, as he agreed with me about that very correct observation I made about how right I think I am/was. He said something else afterwards, but I really wasn’t paying attention. Too busy musing about John Hufnagel agreeing with me about a football matter – this image of me ‘n Huff, running in bromantic metaphorical slow motion together down the gridiron, passed all my buddies who I ever got into a football argument with – and Huff telling ‘em all that I was right and they were wrong and…
Ahem. I digress.
“Draft day is not an exact science,” he added. “How important is the game to a player? If it’s important and you bring ‘em to camp they’re, going to do everything they can to stick around. And once they stick around, they’re going to do everything they can to get better, and that’s the whole key to being a professional football player – is getting better.”
Ted Goveia, Argos’ Director of Canadian Scouting concurred. “Are they getting better? Are they continuing to work at it? Guys don’t necessarily think that way when they’re 19 or 20 years old, but those are things that I would look for to see that there’s some increase – that the kid hasn’t tapped out – or even how interested he is in being a pro athlete.”
It seems desire is as important as ability.
“Sometimes it fits in where the player had a great college career,” said Riders’ Defensive Coordinator, Richie Hall, “but you don’t play right away, and you might get discouraged, and your skills deteriorate, or all of a sudden you go from being the star, to being just another player. When you look at it, there’s a lot of history over the last 15 years of 1st round picks – how many are playing three years later? The number’s very low.”
A closer look at names in the high rounds will reveal other factors that skew the ratio of long career verses anonymity. Sometimes a player is/was the ‘real deal’, as me ‘n Huff would say, but that player goes to the NFL and never comes to Canada. Sometimes the player weighs the complete uncertainty, volatile instability, and relatively low earning potential of life in the CFL against a career in the real world. Sometimes a player is injured in camp, and never gets his shot.
“The meat and potatoes are the 2nd, 3rd, 4th round that you gotta find players that play for you, whether they’re special teams or they turn out to be starters for you,” said Alouettes‘ GM, Jim Popp. “A lot of it sometimes is 3 or 4 years down the road before they really develop playing for you. We as the Alouettes never go into it thinking we’re going to draft somebody to be our starter. We never look at it as ‘the guy’s going to be a hall-of-famer’. You don’t know anything like that. We just draft guys that we feel are the best players and whether they develop into it or not is a whole other story.”
Popp drafted Dave Stala (50th overall) as a kicker in the 6th round of the 2003 draft. Other notable names to come out of the later rounds over the years include; Kevin Eiben (26th), and Kelly Bates (32nd) in 2001, Jon Ryan (24th) in 2004, Dan’s brother John Comiskey (19th) in 2005, Dominic Picard (23rd) in 2006, and Chris Getzlaf (33rd) in 2007.
“You can find a lot of players in the later rounds,” added Hufnagel. “Maybe they don’t quite have the height, maybe they don’t quite have the speed as the earlier round guys, but they get on the field and they’re football players. The other thing is their maturity rate. Maybe once they get into the CFL and get into a couple training camps that maturity and the progress they make, makes them surpass the guys in the earlier rounds.”
That indeed seems to be what happened with Comiskey.
Eskimos Defensive Coordinator, Greg Marshall, was with the Roughriders at the time. “Part of Dan’s deal is for whatever reason coming out of college, he wasn’t getting a lot of push from his college coach at the time – and a lot of it back then was word of mouth. You call the coaches and find out who they recommend and he wasn’t getting highly recommended, but the reason we kept after him is because a lot of the coaches he played against were recommending him, so we decided to take a chance.”
The 2013 CFL Combine in Toronto was the largest and most robust to date. It’s a reflection of how sophisticated the operation has become. Every team in the CFL is expending significant resources to conduct thorough research on every player. This is a sharp contrast from years ago when scouting in the CFL looked a lot more like a hurry-up offense, rather than a long, methodical, sustained drive.
“When I came into the CFL with Saskatchewan, I think I was on the job maybe 3 or 4 weeks and I had to do a rapid fire look at players, and we were going into a draft that was much larger,” said Popp. “This is my 22nd year in Canada and the facilities have been built, there’s places for players to train year-round. They’re in better shape. There’s a bigger spotlight on it, so there’s more and more prospects. This event has grown a lot. We didn’t get to interview players in the past, we kept asking for that. Now, our team, we interview every prospect that’s here. We split up into two groups and do it in two nights. It’s rapid fire, getting it done.”