Monday 23 March 2015

The Next Canadian Superstar?

Many experts feel that Simon Fraser product Lemar Durant is not only far and away the best draft-eligible receiver, but the overall most talented player available in the 2015 CFL draft class. That includes all eligible Canadians in both the NCAA and CIS, such as NFL bound studs Tyler Varga from Yale and Brett Boyko from UNLV.

The last time that I can recall a Canadian pass catcher receiving such hype was when University of Western Ontario legend Andy Fantuz was selected with the third overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Despite being the best CIS receiver of all time, Fantuz was selected third overall behind defensive end Adam Braidwood and linebacker Jay Pottinger.

Similarly to Fantuz, Durant will likely not be drafted first overall due to the importance of offensive and defensive lineman in the player ratio. Teams typically start three or four national offensive lineman versus two Canadian receivers, while the offensive line position is also without a doubt far more vital to a team’s success than a good receiving corps, particularly the Canadian players on the line.

It's also often considered perhaps a risky pick when clubs decide to use their first round draft pick on a receiver. While being selected in the first round does not mean that the receiver is expected to have a career as successful as Fantuz's or Chris Getzlaf's, it is expected that they develop into a solid starter at some point during their career.

From 2007 to 2014, 11 receivers were taken off the board in the opening round of the draft. The combined average yards-per-season for all 11 is a mere 246 yards. Meanwhile, Andy Fantuz has averaged a whopping 757 yards per season which included a 1,000 yard campaign in 2010.

While Durant's college career was impressive when he was in the lineup, it was not nearly as good as Fantuz's for reasons I'll touch on soon. Although from what I've seen on tape, I think he possesses the skill set to match the former Hec Crighton winner's production in the professional ranks and become the next Canadian superstar.

Durant was originally recruited by the University of Nevada, but transferred to Division II Simon Fraser after redshirting his freshman year with the Wolfpack. He then utilized a medical redshirt in year two to treat juvenile arthritis in his knee, which has not bothered him since he took a year off to treat it in 2011.

Nevada was hoping Durant would return to be an asset in an offence that was centred around some quarterback named Colin Kaepernick. In fact, Nevada coaches even told Durant he would compete for a starting job as a redshirt freshman with Rishard Matthews, who's currently a wideout for the Miami Dolphins. However, he opted to return home and officially start his collegiate career with his high school coach and friends at Simon Fraser, which had just entered the NCAA ranks.

Durant had an incredible freshman year, recording 91 receptions for 1,318 yards (120 YPG) with 17 touchdowns in 11 games. After starting quarterback Trey Wheeler left to pursue bigger and better things in Division I, Durant caught 29 passes for 389 yards and five touchdowns in only four games during his sophomore season while playing with two struggling quarterbacks, which ultimately led to the Clan becoming a very run heavy offence during Durant's final two seasons. Simon Fraser's quarterbacks led the conference in interceptions while Durant missed seven games with an ankle injury; the only sport-related injury of his athletic career.

Durant looked to get back on track in his junior season, but had another case of bad luck as he contracted infectious mononucleosis (mono) and missed another four games. In 23 college games, the Coquitlam, BC native had 175 catches for 2,392 yards and 28 touchdowns, which averages out to 7.6 catches per game, 104 yards, and 1.2 touchdowns. He was named Simon Fraser's offensive MVP in 2012, was a three-time 1st-team All-Conference selection, was named an All-American in 2012 and was selected by Beyond Sports College Network in 2014 as the No. 1 draft sleeper for the 2015 NFL draft. While Durant's stats on paper under these circumstances are quite impressive, it's his game on film that really blows me away.

You don't have to be an expert scout to recognize Durant's raw talent. His highlight tape is essentially six minutes worth of entertainment featuring the 23-year old burning cornerbacks down field.

Durant is a bigger receiver at 6'3”, 231 pounds, and has great speed for a receiver of that size with a sub 4.5 40-yard dash time. Durant has a large catching radius and maximizes his vertical leap and physicality when fighting for the jump ball. Durant's freakish athleticism, size, speed and big-play ability have me sold that he can immediately be a respectable deep-threat and red-zone target in year one in the CFL.

In order to be labelled as "Fantuzable," Durant will have to find success in the CFL quickly and average around 600 yards with three touchdowns per season for his first three years.

The last rookie national receiver to start a good chunk of games was Edmonton's 2012 first-round pick Shamawd Chambers, who started 11 games, missing time due to injuries, and chipped in 390 yards and two touchdowns.

While Chambers was a first-round pick himself, he was nowhere near the prospect Lemar Durant is. Chambers' best season at Wilfrid Laurier University was his senior year when he recorded 652 receiving yards in eight games, good for 13th overall out of all CIS schools.

Chambers was fortunately put in a good situation to step up mid-season after injuries piled up in Edmonton. He had time to learn and adjust to the professional game before being thrust into the starting lineup for 11 starts. Despite him being far more prepared physically than Chambers, the same is likely to occur for Durant.

With that being said, I do believe there are a couple teams where Durant could beat the odds and start early on as a national rookie. One team that comes to mind is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who hold the second overall pick.

Winnipeg's starting inside national receiver is Julian Feoli-Gudino, who had zero career catches in two seasons before registering a mere 240 yards in 2014. The Laval product's three seasons of experience likely mean he has a good understanding of CFL coverages and can find soft spots in zones better than Durant (not that Julian has really proved any of that to be true), yet the latter has given me no reason to believe that he would not be able to learn quickly, like many international rookie receivers do during their first season. Feoli-Gudino, a fifth round draft pick in 2011, is not nearly as talented as Durant and cannot do anything, skill-wise, that Durant can’t do right now.

The 400 yards Fantuz accumulated during his rookie season is certainly doable for Durant, and I expect him to breakout in year two with around 600-700 yards.

As far as I am concerned, Durant is the best draft-eligible receiver since Fantuz in 2006. The former SFU Clan and Nevada Wolfpack member is reportedly viewed as the best player available in the best draft class in a very long time; far better than that of 2007 when a certain bust named Chris Bauman was selected with the top pick by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Durant was even viewed as a legitimate mid-to-late round future NFL draft pick after his incredible freshman year.

This kid is special, and I'm completely confident that he can follow in the footsteps of CIS-great Andy Fantuz.

I guess there's just something about football players named Durant.

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