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CFL's annual Canadian combine has come a long way since O'Shea participated

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea looks on during second half football action against the Toronto Argonauts in the 109th Grey Cup at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The CFL combine has come a long way since Mike O'Shea auditioned for league officials.

In 1993, O'Shea was a top pro prospect at the University of Guelph. After participating in the combine in Winnipeg, O'Shea was taken in the first round, fourth overall, of the CFL draft by Edmonton.

O'Shea never made it to Edmonton. He was dealt shortly afterwards to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, where he spent his first three CFL seasons before signing with the Toronto Argonauts as a free agent.

But the Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach is in Alberta's capital for this week's 2023 combine, where 67 Canadian university players and 21 Globals will audition before CFL officials. The league's Global and Canadian drafts are both May 2.

And, oh, how the times have changed.

"Well, we're not feeding them Big Macs in between drills," O'Shea, a 2017 inductee into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, said with a chuckle. "And working out at the soccer dome, jumping up and doing the vertical against an I-beam with chalk on your finger.

"But it's all good."

As a player, O'Shea was a throwback. The hard-nosed middle linebacker helped Toronto win three Grey Cups (1996, '97, '04) playing with an edge and the attitude that the way to overcome adversity was to bust through it, not go around.

So it's not surprising that O'Shea, who won another Grey Cup as Argos special teams co-ordinator (2012) and two more as head coach of the Bombers (2019, 2021), would be curious to see how today's player would adjust to the simpler times.

"In my mind, I think throwing all of these guys into a situation like that for an hour where it's really less than ideal can tell a lot about guys," he said. "A lot of these kids have the benefit of coming from really well-funded programs and have everything at their disposal . . . not all of them.

"But, 'Hey, here's some cinder blocks, throw them around for a bit and then run around on a slippery field and do your best.' I'd like to see that to. Put them in a tough, stressful situation."

The '23 combine will feature a revamped five-day format, a change from the traditional three-day event.

Prospects were scheduled to undergo medical testing and measurements Wednesday, with individual testing — events such as the bench press, 40-yard dash, vertical and broad jumps — slated for Thursday. From Friday through Sunday, players will participate in on-field practices at Commonwealth Stadium Field House, with CFL coaches leading positional groups and installing offences and defences.

"I think it's a great thing any time we get to see more of these athletes being coached, see how well they do with coaching doing football-related drills," said Montreal head coach Jason Maas. "I think you get to see that learning curve (of) what guys know."

For both Maas and Alouettes GM Danny Maciocia, the combine is just part of the process. It also included hours of watching and evaluating game film throughout a prospect's university tenure.

"Obviously, film speaks for itself," Maciocia said. "Having said that, the combine gives us an opportunity to see them perform live, how they interact with other teammates, the way they take information . . . if it's a one-on-one, how they manage if they come out on top or on the short end.

"Obviously the interview will be part of the process here, just to see how they handle themselves (before) a head coach and football operations people where it could be rapid fire in terms of questions. You just get a more accurate reading of what you see on film and if it transfers to the weekend. It's not the end-all, be-all but it definitely is an indicator of maybe what we see on film."

Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie likes the extended format because it will give teams a deeper look into the players' football intelligence. But he's also looking forward to the interviews with prospects.

"You really see the character of each player, their makeup, who they are as a person, what they want to get out of this football experience," he said. "The interview, for me personally, really solidifies some of these guys in our mind, if they're going to be an Argo or if we feel comfortable bringing them into the building."

Vince Magri, Toronto's assistant GM, said with three practice sessions, prospects can show their resolve and ability to be consistent.

"You'll get to see the competitive aspect of the players," Magri said. "You'll see if guys can stack good days together, can they be consistent?

"If they have a poor first day, can they rebound or are guys just going to dominate for three, four days straight. It's going to add an interesting wrinkle to this process that we go through."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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