Scouting football during pandemic presents many challenges for CFL personnel

Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters. (John Woods/CP)

It cost the CFL it’s 2020 campaign. Now the COVID-19 pandemic is creating challenges for football personnel to prepare for next season.

Many CFL scouts would usually be on the road now evaluating Canadian and American university talent. But the global outbreak has forced U Sports to cancel its ’20 season and while four of U.S. college football’s Power 5 conferences are playing — the Pac-12 is the lone dissenter — the Canada-U.S. border remains closed for non-essential travel.

Scouts can still fly to the U.S., but any time spent in so-called hot-spot states would mean having to do a 14-day quarantine after leaving that state. They’d also have to self-isolate upon returning to Canada.

And it’s become more difficult to get on American campuses and gain access to players.

Syracuse University, for example, is allowing pro scouts to its home games on a limited basis. But they must adhere to the school’s stadium protocols — wear masks at all times, no field access and remain in assigned areas to maintain social distancing.

Syracuse has six Canadians in its program, including sophomore starters Matthew Bergeron (offensive lineman from Victoriaville, Que.) and Geoff Cantin-Arku (linebacker from Levis, Que.).

“It’s a challenge,” said Brendan Mahoney, the Calgary Stampeders player-personnel director. “There’s no playbook for this because we’ve never had to scout from your home office.

“We rely heavily on our video department in terms of getting the film we need to evaluate. You might not be getting the face-to-face interaction you normally would so you must get creative and get on the phone and talk to people.”

Game film was a key part of the ’20 CFL draft preparation after the league cancelled its annual evaluation camp. But many scouts had attended games in 2019 and spoken with prospects and coaches beforehand.

For many evaluators, the eyeball test remains a crucial tool.

“You get to see someone’s body type, how they’re built and some clues to their physical structure,” said Drew Allemang, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ senior director of personnel and co-manager of football operations. “Sometimes just being at a live game gives you context to certain plays . . . if it’s in the fourth and the game is close you can see how the player arrives at that particular occasion.

“Some scouts like to be on the sidelines before or during a game to get a sense of a player: Does he give information to coaches about what he sees on the field, how do people speak to him and how does he speak to others?”

Many CFL teams have football personnel in the U.S. who can drive to nearby schools. But with no season in Canada — the league nixed plans for an abbreviated ’20 campaign in August — franchises have dramatically scaled back operations.

“It’s two-fold, there’s the budgetary end of things and then the safety end of things,” said Kyle Walters, the GM of the Grey Cup-champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers. “We’ve really kind of put a freeze on any spending organizationally.

“We put a fair bit of time and energy to get to NFL camps and scouting that end of things. I guess it’s similar to last year’s draft where we saw kids last fall but didn’t get an (evaluation) camp so you’re spending much of your time on film and more video and phone conferences than in person. I think that’s just the way things are going to move into the New Year.”

A bigger issue will be evaluating Canadian university prospects without the benefit of ’20 game film.

“Being unable to see them is definitely a challenge because most of your evaluation is based upon what these kids do in games,” Mahoney said. “I know the University of Calgary is practising a bit so we’ll be able to get a sense of what they’re doing.

“But we’re definitely going to have to come up with a gameplan.”

With no football in 2020, the onus will fall upon draft-eligible players to handle their pro football preparation.

“I think they can still get prepared for the CFL but obviously nothing beats playing actual games,” Allemang said. “I still think you’re excited about the draft, there’s some very good players going into it.”

The pandemic has created plenty of uncertainty. CFL officials remain unsure if there’ll be an evaluation camp for ’21 draft-eligible Canadian players.

“Fingers crossed that’s up and running and we’re back to somewhat of a semblance of normalcy in the spring,” Walters said. “There’s a real question mark with the time some of these kids haven’t been playing football.

“It will be quite challenging without seeing them in person to gauge their fitness level, their health level, everything.”

U Sports is the lifeblood of Canadian content in CFL lineups. Franchises must carry 21 Canadians on their 46-man game-day roster and start at least seven.

Walters feels clubs that have invested time recruiting Canadian universities and established relationships with coaches there will be better equipped to deal with the uncertainty. U Sports is important to Walters, who served as both the defensive co-ordinator and head coach of the Guelph Gryphons (2004-2009) before becoming Winnipeg’s special-teams coach (2010-12).

“When I was a Canadian university head coach it was a big deal when you had interactions with a CFL club rather than a week before the draft getting a random call asking, ‘Who’s good on your team?”’ Walters said. “Out of respect for how hard these coaches and programs work, it’s important to go support them and evaluate the players.

“When you make your follow-up calls it’s not a cold call asking about players. It’s easier based upon the relationship you have and it’s a conversation.”

Walters, Allemang and Mahoney all agree they’re missing football right now.

“I’m a big U Sports fan of all the sports and really miss getting out,” Walters said. “I love driving to North Dakota to watch the Canadians play.

“It’s tough on all these guys to not be playing football.”

However, the pandemic has taught CFL officials how to make do with less and that more isn’t necessarily better.

“It’s definitely different . . . but I’ve found you’ve kind of been able to be a little more efficient at times through this,” Allemang said. “Our world changed a lot right in the thick of the (’20) draft process and we had to learn and try different things on the fly with video technologies that the rest of the world, the business world, were using.

“You look at it as this is our situation and how can we make the most of it? And I think, for us, it feels like it’s working pretty well so far.”

Walters agrees.

“I think what this has shown is you don’t need to be flying and meeting in person and spending money on trips and conventions to get stuff accomplished,” he said. “From my point of view in regards to football, we can get a lot accomplished and save some money doing things the way we’ve operated during this crisis.”

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