First & 10 | Brandon Collier on international talent

Fair to say the Canadian Football League’s first dive into the global player pool in 2019 served up some rather underwhelming and lukewarm results.

Oh sure, here in Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans saw the rapid growth of German defensive lineman Thiadric Hansen over the course of 2019, as he morphed from a project to a rotational player on defence before delivering a signature hit in the 107th Grey Cup victory.

But after Hansen, the returns from the league’s inaugural Mexican and European Drafts were thin. I mean, ask yourself this: who was the CFL’s second-best Global player in Year 1 of the initiative?

Yet, it’s here where things may soon get interesting, as many believe the next couple of waves of talent from Europe and beyond should collectively make much more of an impact in the years ahead.

As evidence, we touched base with former Blue Bombers defensive lineman Brandon Collier, a man who has made it his business to find talent all over the planet and help them land NCAA scholarships through his company, Premier Prospects International.

“There’s so much talent over here,” began Collier, when reached at his home in Wiesbaden, Germany prior to this week’s CFL Global Draft. “The CFL and the NFL won’t really start to benefit from a lot of these guys until the next year or two when the wave of talent we first sent over finish school.

“And to be honest with you, the next wave… I’ll just say the CFL and NFL is really going to benefit a lot from these kids.”

Collier’s company has helped over 90 players get Division I scholarships in the U.S. since 2016. He doesn’t require a fee for that service, but makes his business work because his reputation in Europe is so solid he can charge players to attend his football camps. He also takes prospects to U.S. college camps in the summer, but only asks for fees to cover his expenses.

Over the last four-five years, the former UMass product – who had two sacks in 10 starts with the Bombers in ’12 – has developed such a respected eye for talent a couple of CFL teams reached out to see if he would serve as a scout, although he’s still working only on running his business.

“My first goal is to help these kids and wherever God leads me after, I’m fine with that,” Collier said. “I started this because I wanted to offer something that I wish I had when I was a young player. There are a lot of kids in Canada and in the U.S. who are in smaller states who are really good players, but they don’t have anybody vouching for them. It’s hard to get noticed when you go to a camp with hundreds of kids.”

With his feet on the ground in Germany and his network growing, yours truly asked Collier about what he is seeing in terms of the game’s growth in Europe.

“Think about this: I believe there are more football clubs in Germany now than in Canada.” he said. “There are over 1,000 clubs in Europe alone. Football is already huge here. Then there’s France, the UK, Japan, Australia, the Scandinavian countries. We had five kids from Australia sign with Division I schools.

“We’re just scratching the surface here.”

More from Collier and other notes and quotes in this week’s edition of First & 10…

1. Collier’s decision to set up shop in Germany has an interesting backstory. After his college days at UMass – he had been banged up in his final year – it was suggested he needed to get some tape to earn a professional tryout. He considered both the Arena League and the CFL, but ended up playing in Vienna, Austria for four months.

His work there landed him a freeagent deal with the Philadelphia Eagles and a year later he was with the Bombers.

“I could see the talent (in Europe) even back in 2011,” he said. “I was 24 at the time and I was playing against guys who were 17-18 – I didn’t know they were that young until after the game. I knew they could play at a high level of college. I was focused on playing, but I knew eventually I was going to give back to the game and come back and coach or help them get an opportunity.”

Collier played the one season with the Bombers, but was released in the spring of 2013. That’s when he reached a career crossroads of sorts.

“I knew I had to shift gears,” he said. “I thought about going back to Europe with the opportunities here. I found a team and even though I didn’t really want to play anymore I wanted to coach and grow the game here. I sure didn’t know I would be in the role I am today, but my goal was to come over here and help kids.

“I saw a lot of talent as I was coaching and playing and in 2016 I got an ACL injury and that was the push to take this into my own hands and help these athletes from Europe get to America. It’s been my passion.”

2. The 2012 Bombers started out with four straight games on the road as IG Field wasn’t finished, and that squad replaced Paul LaPolice midseason with Tim Burke and finished 6-12.

“Before I got there I had a really bad ankle injury and didn’t think my career was going to extend past that because it was causing a lot of problems,” Collier recalled. “But I got healthy and got a workout and then signed with the Blue Bombers in 2012. I earned a starting job in camp and what I remember was making the opening-day roster and making that dream come true. That was so fulfilling.

“In terms of wins and losses, that wasn’t the best time but after that year I think I learned to appreciate the game even more than what I did during the season because we were going through a lot with not having a lot of success. I look back now and think, ‘Wow, I had an amazing time in Winnipeg.’ I was living out a dream.”

3. One more from Collier… I asked him if he was able to see the 2019 Grey Cup game during his travels in Europe and if the Bombers’ championship resonated with him as an alumni.

“Any time you play for a team, whether it’s college or professional, you become a fan of that team whether you play or not,” he said. “Even though I haven’t been a part of the team for seven-eight years now, I still root for them.

“Kyle Walters was one of the guys that seemed to like me a lot when I was there. He wasn’t the GM then, but you could tell that one day he would be something. I can see their success started to come year by year and it was exciting to see them win the Grey Cup. I didn’t watch the game, but I sure saw the highlights.”

4. The Bombers liked their haul in Thursday’s Global Draft and if first impressions truly matter, then Japanese-American linebacker Les Maruo crushed it in his session with the local media during a conference call.

He and his family moved from Japan to Kansas when he was young and, after finishing his playing days at the University of Texas-San Antonio, Maruo spoke of what it meant to go back to Japan to play in the X League.

“It was a very good experience for me,” he said. “I grew up in the States and sometimes forget that I was born (in Japan) and have family there. I became Americanized and so being able to go back… my grandma got to watch me play football for the first time, ever. My mom is over there and I got to see all my family members and they’re proud of me.

“My Japanese… I forgot how to speak a little bit and when I got there everything became fluent again. I just embrace it more now. I do it not for me, but for the people of Japan. I just want to make football bigger in Japan.”

5. Another leftover from Maruo, this one on the homework he has been doing on Winnipeg and the Blue Bombers.

“I’ve already been watching some of the games on YouTube,” he said. “As soon as you type in CFL games the first thing that pops up is the Grey Cup from 2019. A lot of Winnipeg stuff comes up first because Winnipeg is such a big organization in the CFL.

“I’ve been following Adam Bighill. I’ve been following (Thiadric Hansen), the Global player from last year… I’m going to continue to watch games and continue to learn about Winnipeg and the CFL so that whenever I get there I’ll be ready.”

6. It’s not easy to find mock drafts or a lot of independent scouting reports on the CFL’s Global Draft prospects. But JC Abbott, who does some good work for American Football International and 3Down Nation, offered up a blurb on each of the Global picks this week.

Here’s what he said about the four Bombers picks:

Les Maruo, LB, Japan
“The first Japanese born player to ever start in Division One college football, Maruo spent much of his childhood in Wichita, Kansas before going to UTSA.
He’s a mean, violent linebacker who moves really well and will instantly be a core special teams player for Winnipeg.”

Tomoya Machino, OL, Japan
“Straight up, no holds barred, my favourite player in the draft.
Machino isn’t pro ready yet, he may need to sit on the practice roster, but he is the most natural offensive lineman I’ve seen in a while. His form is beautiful, his feet are gorgeous and he makes the unnatural look second nature.
If he was Canadian, I’d pound the table for him at the top of the draft. A future starter in the making.”

Ayo Oyelola, LB, United Kingdom
“A great coverage linebacker from the British College ranks, Oyelola is another player in the IPP program.
He didn’t run well for scouts at his pro day (potentially due to injury), but he’s a lot faster on the field and can be a tremendous special teamer if he falls in the CFL’s lap.”

Arryn Siposs, Punter, Australia
“Futures picks are the name of the game here and Siposs could be a big one.
The Auburn product is a top punter who is currently expected to compete for the Philadelphia Eagles top job. If he loses out, Winnipeg will benefit.”

7. Three Bombers Global Draft pick-related links worth checking out, FYI: On Tomoya Machino, from the CFL’s combine last year in Japan and via CFL.ca; on Ayo Oyelola on his route to the NFLs International Pathway Program, via Sky Sports; on Arryn Siposs, added in January to the Philadelphia Eagles practice roster, via phillyvoice.com

8. Congrats to this year’s Canadian Football Hall of Fame class, which includes players Nik Lewis, Will Johnson, Mike Walker, Orlondo Steinauer and Don Wilson and builder Marv Levy – the former Montreal Alouettes head coach – and Doug Mitchell, who was the sixth commissioner in CFL history.

This year’s class doesn’t include anyone with ties to the Blue Bombers, although there are a couple of links. Wilson, who played in 197 CFL games and won four Grey Cups – two each with Edmonton and Toronto — was actually selected by the Bombers in the 1987 Montreal Alouettes dispersal draft. The Alouettes folded on the eve of the ’87 season and after being released by the Bombers, Wilson landed in Edmonton.

And Bernie Pascall, a fixture on the B.C. sports media scene for years, was added to the Football Reporters of Canada media wing of the CFHOF. Before settling in B.C., Pascall worked at CFAR in Flin Flon and then CKRC and CJAY in Winnipeg.

9. We couldn’t go a week without some CFL-XFL and/or CFL return to play links. The latest on the CFL’s plan from TSN’s Dave Naylor and Farhan Lalji speaks of a CFL Board of Governors meeting next week after which more detail might be available on a 2021 season.

More speculation and conversation, courtesy Regina’s Rod Pederson while on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 in Edmonton.

10. And finally, came across this old piece today – from the Chicago Tribune and via Pat Hickey of The Montreal Gazette in November of 1987. That year the Alouettes folded, moving the Bombers into the East Division and making the CFL eight-team league.

The headline: ‘CFL May Be Beyond Rescuing’

Let’s try to remember that during these trying times: this league, for all its warts, somehow survives.

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