France native Valentin Gnahoua picked first in CFL European draft

Defensive linemen Marc Anthony Hor of Germany, right, Johannes Zirngibl of Germany, second right, Valentinois Gnahoua of France, second left, and Okko Outinen of Finland, takes part in on field tests during the CFL combine in Toronto. (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

TORONTO — Valentin Gnahoua and Asnnel Robo have given football players from France another potential career path.

Gnahoua and Robo went first and third overall, respectively, in the CFL’s first-ever European player draft Thursday. Gnahoua, a six-foot-one, 235-pound defensive lineman, went No. 1 to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats while the five-foot-seven, 217-pound Robo, a former Montreal Carabins running back in the university ranks, was taken two picks later by the Montreal Alouettes.

"I think it’s pretty exciting for French players because from now on they have the goal to aim for," Robo said during a conference call. "They can think about going to professional football, whether it’s in Germany, in Europe, or now they can aim for the CFL, which is the second-best league in the world.

"To be able to be ranked as the best European players, it just shows in France we have some great talent and can do great things. GMs and coaches in the CFL noticed that and I can’t wait for training camp to prove what I can do."

Gnahoua agreed.

"This is a great opportunity for me and for French players," he said.

CFL teams selected from the 18 Europeans who participated in the league’s national combine last month in Toronto. Players from Germany (six), France and Finland (four each), Denmark and Italy (two each) were invited as part of commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s CFL 2.0 initiative.

Since November, Ambrosie has secured working relationships with football federations in Mexico, Germany, Austria, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Italy.

Once the Europeans sign CFL deals, they’ll be eligible to attend training camp, which is scheduled to begin May 19. However, the league and CFL Players’ Association remain in contract talks with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire May 18.

The status of the Europeans — whether they’re national or international — will be determined in collective bargaining.

Drew Allemang, Hamilton’s senior director of personnel and co-manager of football operations, said Gnahoua has the ability to make the Ticats’ active roster.

"We drafted him to come in and legitimately compete for a roster spot and … it’s something we think he can do," Allemang said. "He runs well, he’s a pretty explosive kid and has some length about him.

"When we got into some of the video we had of him, we started to like him as a football player. There’s definitely something from the start on special teams and from there it will be on him and us to continue developing him."

Gnahoua had 24 reps in the bench press at the combine, ran a 4.84-second 40-yard dash and had a 31.5-inch vertical leap.

Gnahoua and Robo were among four French-born players taken in the single-round draft. Three Germans were also selected with one each from Italy and Finland.

This was the second CFL draft this year involving ‘global’ players. The league conducted a three-round draft of Mexican players in January after holding a combine there.

Following Gnahoua’s selection, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers took German Thiadric Hansen. Robo was ecstatic to be then selected by the Alouettes.

"For the past four years, Montreal has been my hometown," he said. "To be able to stay here to play professional football, it’s amazing."

The Edmonton Eskimos picked French linebacker Maxime Rouyer fourth overall. The Toronto Argonauts followed with German defensive lineman Marc Anthony Hor before compatriot Max Earvin Zimmermann, a receiver, went to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The B.C. Lions took French receiver Benjamin Plu next before the Ottawa Redblacks picked Italian receiver Jordan Bouah. The Grey Cup-champion Calgary Stampeders concluded the draft by selecting Finnish-born linebacker Roni Salonen, 28.

According to the CFL, 11 Germans have played during the league’s history along with two from France and Italy (that includes recently retired B.C. Lions head coach Wally Buono). No players from either Finland or Denmark have ever been on a roster.

The six-foot-one, 233-pound Hansen, 26, showed plenty of athleticism at the combine, posting a 4.88-second 40-yard dash, 20 reps in the bench, 38-inch vertical and broad jump of 10 feet 2.13 inches.

Robo, 25, posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.59 seconds — tops among European players — had 17 reps in the bench and a 33.5-inch vertical leap. Robo ran for 484 yards and four TDs last year with the Carabins.

The six-foot-one, 225-pound Rouyer, 24, had 16 reps in the bench and 33.5-inch vertical. But he ran a 4.96-second 40-yard dash. Hor had 28 reps in the bench — tops among Europeans — but the burly six-foot-one, 286-pound Hor posted a 40-yard dash time of 5.22 seconds, prompting many to suggest the 26-year-old’s CFL future could be as an offensive lineman.

The five-foot-11, 193-pound Zimmermann had 15 reps in the bench and a 40-yard dash time of 4.89 seconds to go with a 32-inch vertical leap. At six foot two and 285 pounds, Plu has good size but lacks blazing speed (40-yard dash time of 4.89 seconds).

In Bouah, the Redblacks have a five-foot-nine, 197-pounder who had a 33-inch vertical in Toronto. But he also recorded six reps in the bench and was clocked 4.68 seconds over 40 yards.

The six-foot-two, 220-pound Salonen ran a 4.90-second 40-yard dash. He also posted a 29-inch vertical leap and 16 reps in the bench.

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