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Dinos athlete showcases talent to National Football League scouts during collegiate all-star game

By Kristy Koehler, February 14 2019 —

Canadian varsity football players are making their mark on the professional sporting landscape. This year, U Sports athletes were included in the National Football League Player’s Association (NFLPA) Collegiate Bowl in Pasadena, California and the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Florida, both on Jan.19. The two annual games are an opportunity for college athletes to play in front of NFL scouts and showcase their talents.

The Shrine Game is the longest-running university all-star game in North America. While U Sports athletes have been included since 1985, this year marked the first time that U Sports athletes were also invited to play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, perhaps a sign that Canadian talent is getting more international recognition. The Shrine Game’s roster generally includes two athletes whose home university is in Canada, with the game benefitting the Shriners Hospitals for Children.

“We include Canadian players to represent our Canadian supporters and patients. This includes Canada-based Shriners Hospitals for Children treatment centres, patients, staff and supporting Shriners,” the Shrine Game team said in a statement.

This year, University of Calgary Dinos defensive lineman Joel Van Pelt was one of the two U Sports roster choices.

Van Pelt, in an interview with Football Gameplan on YouTube, said being snubbed from the roster of the U Sports annual East-West Bowl — the Canadian collegiate all-star game — motivated him to perform his best at an even bigger event, the Shrine Game.

“This is huge. This is the next level for me. This is one of the biggest things you can get out of U Sports. It’s a huge deal and I’m really happy to be here,” said Van Pelt.

The NFL and the Canadian Football League have some differences in gameplay — the CFL has a larger field, three downs instead of four, one fewer player and a one-yard distance between the line of scrimmage and the defensive team. How did Van Pelt adapt to the differences in the game?

“The first half of practice was kind of rough and then as it kept going on I got more comfortable and started doing a little better,” he said.

The coach of the West team, Adam Zimmer, also thought Van Pelt adjusted well.

Zimmer, the linebacker coach for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, is a 13-year coaching veteran. He’s been with the Vikings for the last five seasons. Prior to his appointment in Minnesota, he worked with the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs and was the assistant linebacker coach for the New Orleans Saints during their Super Bowl win.

Zimmer doesn’t think it’s a huge adjustment for a Canadian player to adapt to NFL rules, citing the American college game’s tendency for quick throws and a wide-spread offence.

“I think it’s pretty similar, the transition for college players as it is for Canadian players because of the way the league is right now,” Zimmer said in an interview with the Gauntlet. “I think from wherever you get a player — whether it be from Canada or whether you’re a player from Clemson — you have to have the ability to teach them from scratch the NFL technique, the way the game is played.”

Zimmer is no stranger to Canadian players, having coached current Calgary Stampeder Cory Greenwood.

“When I was in Kansas City, Cory Greenwood played for us. He ended up making the team and was a real good player on special teams for us when I was in Kansas City. He came directly from Canada — I had to teach him the NFL rules and what it’s like to play with 11 players,” said Zimmer of the former Concordia University player. Greenwood played for both the Chiefs and the Detroit Lions before returning to Canada to play in the CFL.

Of Van Pelt, Zimmer said he did a nice job.

“He’s a big guy, a big body and has pass-rush ability. He’s raw but I think there’s some things you can work with,” Zimmer said. “You really saw an improvement from the first practice.”

The West squad won the game 21–17. Van Pelt recorded two tackles and one assist. The defensive lineman was selected by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 2018 CFL draft, picked 62nd overall.

U of C athletic director Jason Kerswill was thrilled to have a Dino on the Shrine Game’s roster.

“It’s fantastic,” Kerswill said. “We’ve got a lot of talent here in Canada — sometimes it goes under the radar a little bit. So to see it recognized on an international stage is something that we want to support.”


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