Syracuse football extends recruiting reach north of the border

Babers says that 'Canada is an untapped area' for recruiting as SU signs two prospects from the country in 2017 class.

The first time Syracuse head football coach Dino Babers had ever seen a Canadian was during his playing days as a running and defensive back for the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Babers remembers him as a 6-foot-7, 265-pound, blond hair, blue-eyed individual by the name of Jim Mills and he was quite fond of the offensive lineman’s work ethic. Mills was a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, and he played two years in the NFL before becoming a Canadian Football League All-Star with the B.C. Lions.

Photo: Syracuse University Athletics
SU assistant coach Mike Lynch draws up a play on the sidelines. Lynch was influential in recruiting Patrick Davis to Syracuse.

“I’ve always respected how quickly he adjusted to the game even though he hadn’t had a lot of years in it,” said Babers during his National Signing Day press conference.

Fast forward to the present: the differences between the Canadian and American game are still there. There are three downs in the Canadian game instead of four. Canadian football has 12 players on the field at once instead of 11. Canadian fields are larger, and so on.

But it hasn’t stopped Canadian players from trying to catch on at schools south of the border. Twenty Canadian football players, according to Canada Football Chat, have committed to an NCAA Division I school for 2017.

There were only 12 commits to D1 schools in 2015. This year’s crop is heading to schools like Michigan, Missouri, and Penn State. Syracuse has recruited a pair — Gatineau, Quebec native and offensive lineman Patrick Davis and Brampton, Ontario linebacker Tyrell Richards.

Davis was an all-star lineman at CEGEP Champlain College in Lennoxville, Quebec, while Richards competed as a member of Clarkson Football North, a football program offered at Clarkson Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario. The program plays against American teams, with American rules.

“I think [Canada] is an untapped area,” Babers said. “It’s an area that’s obviously close to Syracuse University. I think it’s something that we’re going to try to take advantage of as long as I have a tenure at Syracuse University.”

SU football has a small history of recruiting Canadian players. Among their most prominent was Montreal wide receiver Tommy Kane, who spent three years on the Orange roster and led the team in touchdowns in his final season in 1987. Kane then embarked on a professional career in both the Canadian and National Football League.

SU football also pursued two other Canadians for this year’s class, linebacker Jesse Kuleta, who eventually committed to Penn St, and wide receiver Josh Palmer who de-committed from Syracuse before signing with Tennessee.

Next season, Davis and Richards will be the first Canadians on an SU football roster since fullback and Winnipeg native Mitchell Piasecki in 2012.

“For me, I always wanted to play in the NCAA,” Davis said to prior to Signing Day.

Davis played at Champlain College under head coach JF Joncas, who has since become the co-offensive coordinator at the University of Guelph. He admires Davis for his work ethic.

“Pat is a hard worker, man,” Joncas said. “He’s a big kid. He’s really strong. But even if he was stronger than the kids he was playing against, he always worked to get his technique done as well.”

Joncas adds that SU offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mike Lynch was responsible for recruiting Davis. Lynch spotted Davis a year and half ago before he struck up a connection with the lineman and invited him to an SU camp. 

Former SU assistant coach Tom Kaufman raved about Richards in an interview with Syracuse Athletics, saying that the team discovered him doing defensive backs drills at a shuttle camp before convincing him to attend an SU camp.

“He absolutely killed it,” Kaufman said. “He was tough. He ran well. He’s got elite size. He committed very shortly after that.”

Richards’ former coach Larry Jusdanis, a former Canadian Football League player, shares the belief with SU staff that Richards can be a future NFL player. Jusdanis said Richards could play as either an inside or outside linebacker.

[He’s] fearless,” Jusdanis said. “He’s long and he’s fast. He’s got a lot of attributes athletically that work for him. Last year, he was the best player in every game. He was the most physically dominant football player there.”

Joncas notes that Davis brings maturity to the SU squad thanks to his education from CEGEP, a pre-university institution solely in Quebec. Once students complete their high school education (following Grade 11), they usually attend a two-year or three-year CEGEP program before attending university. Attending CEGEP doesn’t affect Davis’s eligibility to play for a four-year university, and he enters SU with all of his eligibility remaining.

Of course, the downside of Canadian players wanting to take their talents to the States is that Canadian university coaches have more competition. Joncas’s football team, the University of Guelph Gryphons, is part of USports, the Canadian governing body for collegiate athletics.

Graham Brown took over as the Chief Executive Officer of USports in 2015, back when the organization was called Canadian Interuniversity Sport. He understands why Canadian players would play for top-ranked DI schools, but isn’t as convinced about lower-level schools.

“If you’re going to go over and play for East Tennessee State or Division I football for some of the MAAC schools…you’re much better off staying in Canada.” Brown said. “The young athletes that get lured by the NCAA dream that go to a school that is equal or lesser and won’t give them all of the other benefits like an alumni base when they’re done, a great education. Those are the athletes I’d love to sit down with their parents and speak to.

“That’s not saying those schools aren’t good schools in the U.S., I just think our football and our schools would be equal or better and therefore have an opportunity here and not to travel south.”

However, Joncas admits he, and other USports schools, face difficulties in recruiting when American schools dangle higher quality football and scholarships in front of prospective talent.

“If a kid has the talent to go down south, it’s tough for a Canadian university to compete with that. In terms of resources and the free tuition and scholarships,” Joncas said. “In Canada right now, there’s some scholarship offers but not to the extent of what’s being given down south.

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