July 5, 2015

Gridiron grads go to the pros

Former Queen’s quartet entrenched in CFL

In the years after Queen’s celebrated their 2009 Vanier Cup win (above), linemen Shomari Williams and Matt O’Donnell joined two other former Gaels in the CFL.
In the years after Queen’s celebrated their 2009 Vanier Cup win (above), linemen Shomari Williams and Matt O’Donnell joined two other former Gaels in the CFL.

Former Queen’s players have made a name for themselves in pro football — especially in Saskatchewan.

With only four Gaels alums currently playing in the Canadian Football League, it could be seen as a bit of a down year for the school, if not for the quality of its graduates.

Leading the group is defensive end and 2010 first overall pick Shomari Williams, joined by receiver Rob Bagg, long snapper Kevin Scott and offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell.

All four players began their pro careers with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, starting with Bagg in 2007.

His breakout 2009 campaign saw him amass 807 receiving yards and five touchdowns, impressing Saskatchewan management enough to roll the dice on successive Gaels.

“I would say that Shomari and Rob Bagg did their best to sell the Queen’s ideal out there,” said Gaels head coach Pat Sheahan. “Both those kids are really well-respected in Saskatchewan.”

That pro pedigree continues to help the current Gaels squad. Despite traditionally tough academic standards, Queen’s has kept pace with CIS football factories like the universities of Calgary and Laval in the quality of its players.

High academic standards haven’t hurt Sheahan’s recruiting abilities, though it causes Queen’s on-field success to be more cyclical.

“There’s no question that the academic standards we boast here make it somewhat difficult to be in the winner’s circle every year,” Sheahan said. “The model here is we tend to get a group and we build it up and take a shot at [a championship], and that group graduates and you sort of start all over again, rebuilding and loading up for another run.”

All four current pros starred for the Gaels throughout the 2000s, with Williams and O’Donnell starting on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage during Queen’s 2009 Vanier Cup run.

“To take on a dual role in competitive athletics in the sport of football is really, really challenging,” Sheahan said. “Our guys have done extremely well and it bodes well for them [in the CFL].”

This success has coincided with top Canadian talent being taken early and often in the CFL draft.

In previous years, CIS players were generally deemed to be less CFL-ready than their American counterparts.

“In general, teams seem to believe that guys coming out of the CIS tend to be a little more raw, and take maybe a little more time to develop than guys who have played regularly at some of the top NCAA schools,” said Andrew Bucholtz, ArtSci ’09 and editor of Yahoo Canada’s 55 Yard Line CFL blog.

“There is a growing recognition in the CFL that the CIS calibre of play is getting better,” he added. “You’re seeing a lot more full-time coaches on a lot of the big CIS program staffs.”

Draft eligibility has made CIS prospects more attractive to CFL management. Since it can be difficult to gauge the NFL’s interest in American players, CFL clubs may be more likely to opt for the safer choice from a Canadian school rather than risk losing a valuable draft pick.

Top-level coaching and the overall development of the CIS product bode well for current Gaels in their future attempts at the CFL.

“It obviously helps the stock of players from Calgary and Laval … when those programs are winning,” said Bucholtz, a former Journal sports editor. “In my mind, [Queen’s is] one of the solid second tier schools in terms of how many players they’re producing at the moment.”

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