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The secret to Ohio football’s recruiting success: scouting Canada

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In a competitive FBS recruiting environment, Canadian players are finding a home and success— especially in Athens, Ohio.

Kenneth Bailey

It was not long ago, in 2016 to be precise, that many Canadian high school players who wanted a shot with an FBS football program were reportedly on the outside looking in to pursue opportunities to play American football at the collegiate level. To sum it up in a nice package, there were certainly many talented and qualified Canadian players available, but American college programs didn’t particularly put forth the effort to pursue them. This forced a perpetual cycle of players either moving to the States as a high schooler, trying to walk-on to a program post-graduation, or pursuing Canadian USports for decades.

But now, with the recent success of some Canadian players, that seems to be changing, as FBS opportunities for players from up north seem to be on the rise.

One such player that helped increase FBS interest in Canadian players was RB Chuba Hubbard; in three seasons with the Oklahoma State Cowboys, the Sherwood Park, Alberta native rushed for 3,459 yards and 33 touchdowns, with an incredible 2,094 rushing yard campaign in 2019. Such numbers hadn’t been seen in Stillwater since the days of Barry Sanders.

Hubbard is so good, in fact, that he was selected in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL draft, 126th overall, by the Carolina Panthers.

The Ohio Bobcats look be one of the programs who are increasingly recruiting Canadian players, a benefit to both the players and the Bobcats.

RB Maleek Irons, a Calgary, Alberta native, received his only FBS offer from Ohio in 2014, and turned in a very good career with the Bobcats, rushing for 1,447 yards, with a 5.7-yard average per carry and 16 touchdowns. Irons was part of Ohio’s MAC East Title team in 2016 and went on to be drafted in the third round of the 2019 CFL draft by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

In search of a high-level FBS opportunity, former Ohio QB Nathan Rourke began his journey in 2015 by leaving his home in Oakville, Ontario, traveling thousands of miles around the USA in high school and early in his college career before earning a chance with the Bobcats in 2017.

In three years with the Bobcats, Nathan Rourke’s assault on the record books proved he was one of the Mid-American Conference’s all-time best players, with Rourke’s efforts leading Ohio to three-straight bowl game wins. To appreciate the difficulty in winning three straight MAC bowl games, only three other schools since 1962 have done it: Marshall (1998-2000), Miami (1973-75) and Toledo (1969-71).

In addition to recent Ohio graduates in Rourke and Irons, Ohio has three young players on its current roster with Canadian ties, all headed for successful Ohio careers based on early returns.

Three players may not seem like a lot for a roster that has 85 scholarship players, but, to put that number in context, the remaining eleven MAC teams combined have four total Canadian players listed on their current online rosters.

Redshirt Sophomore QB Kurtis Rourke, Nathan’s brother, played high school in Canada for Holy Trinity, where he lit up the league for 4,250 yards passing, 70 percent completion rate, and 63 passing touchdowns. Early returns as Ohio’s starter look promising, as Kurtis Rourke completed 68% of his passes with a 164.4 passing efficiency rate in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Based on our Bobcat positional preview, Kurtis Rourke may develop into one of the MAC’s better passers in short order.

Redshirt freshman safety Jett Elad, who grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, and starred in high school for the Saint Ignatius Wildcats (Cleveland, Ohio), playing primarily in the nickel package for the Bobcats last season as a true freshman, finishing tied for second in the MAC with two interceptions.

Elad is poised for a breakout season in 2021, as he is appearing on some preseason All-Conference lists like PFF’s, who has Elad picked for third team, All-MAC in 2021.

Milton, Ontario, native redshirt freshman CB Pierre Kemeni starred at Clarkson North High School, a Canadian school striving to build a competitive reputation on par with the top US-based high school football programs. Kemeni appeared in all three games for Ohio last season, which bodes well for future success because he is seeing the field as such a young player.

It looks like the trend of Canadian players headed to the Bobcats will continue in 2022 based on early returns. Waterloo, Ontario’s QB prospect Callum Wither is a three-star commit for the 2022 Ohio class, giving the Bobcats the potential to have a Canadian QB at the helm for more than a decade, with the Nathan and Kurtis Rourke coming before Wither.

The fascination with the Great White North in the Ohio football programs has more ties than the on-field talent as well, as several of the coaches on staff have ties to Canada. Co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Allen Rudolph enters his third season with the Bobcats after coaching o-line in the CFL for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for three seasons, helping lead the Tiger-Cats to back-to-back Grey Cup appearances. It will be interesting to see what impact that those ties may have on recruiting Canadian athletes.

Ohio’s reputation as a prospect developer has been praised by most recruiting outlets since Frank Solich took over; part of that reputation is built on the ability to recruit deep classes with a lot of prospects ranked at three stars or lower. They’ve shown no hesitancy to pursue a prospect they think will be an instant contributor, even if they have to go out of their way to do so, and that sort of effort is seen and appreciated by coaches and players in that area.

As it stands, the Canadian recruiting scene is still in development; 247Sports ranked only two Canadian prospects in the Class of 2020 recruiting cycle. Numbers like that could well mean that Ohio’s already underrated recruiting classes have been buoyed by underranked talent, something we’ve known to be the case for a good while. The different style of football, combined with the physical and financial cost of recruiting such a vast area likelty scares a lot of programs off the idea. But as long as Ohio keeps having success Up North, they’ll continue to reload with talent year in and year out and have a big advantage heading into each offseason.

At the very least, this fascinating relationship will be something to think aboot as the 2021 campaign rolls along.