Special teams can’t be an afterthought for players in Canadian university football.
A quick glance at CFL rosters shows 15 former Guelph Gryphons and most played special teams for the Gryphons during their time in the OUA.
“It was probably one of the most if not the most important part, especially as a Canadian linebacker,” Toronto Argos linebacker Curtis Newton said. “That’s one of the things you do throughout your university career – at least it should be. When I first got in university, special teams was how I got on the field. My first year in the CFL that was how I got on the field. It’s definitely a huge part of the game and it kind of bridges the gap between the pros and Canadian university for Canadian university players.”
“It’s not just CFL,” Argos defensive lineman Cam Walker said. “It’s every time you take the next step. It’s what got me on the field when I got here and it’s what got me a spot on the roster in the CFL. If you’re a linebacker, anyone really other than an O lineman, it’s everything. That’s how you take the next step in football.”
Several of the Gryphons in the CFL were back on the University of Guelph Campus for the Gryphons’ specialists clinic and all stressed the importance of special teams.
“It was the only reason I’d get to the CFL, being a small guy,” long snapper Dan MacDonald said. He played with the Saskatchewan Roughriders last season. “The fact that I was good at snapping the football just made me that much more valuable.”
MacDonald was listed as 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds last year with the Roughriders and he took advice from his dad, Gryphons offensive line coach Mike MacDonald, to heart.
“My dad preached the importance of if I ever wanted to make something of football, you had to be good at more than one thing and this could be it,” Dan said of long snapping. “I kind of fell in love with it and I just kept going.”
His ability at long snapping got him recruited by the Gryphons who noticed his ability at it when they were at one of his high school games looking to recruit one of his teammates. His love of playing special teams and usually being the first one down the field to make tackles didn’t hurt, either.
“I loved hitting people,” Dan said. “Who doesn’t.”
Guelphite Jake Reinhart made it to the CFL as a long snapper with the Argos. He joined the Gryphons after playing quarterback with the Guelph CVI Green Gaels in the local District 10 high school league. He also played that position in summer football in Guelph.
“I know a lot of guys who think they’re going to the next level kind of overlook special teams, but it definitely is a huge part of the game, especially in the CFL,” Reinhart said. “It being three-down football, you’re punting and kicking the ball a lot. That’s your ticket in for guys who might be on the outside and be on the verge of making it.
“It’s what teams can see, how you are doing on special teams and if you’re doing real well on special teams and you look like you’re locking guys up and getting downfield making tackles, you’re going to be higher up on the ladder than a guy who is not playing special teams, but is a really good linebacker.”
Reinhart took up long snapping with the Gryphons and practiced it whenever he could.
“Coach (Brian) Cluff, who is the defensive line coach here, he was actually a high school teacher of mine and he took me aside in practice one day and he said ‘Hey, you know what? You could be a good long snapper and you could go to the CFL as a long snapper.’ I said ‘I don’t know about that coach. I haven’t done much long snapping before.’ When there was some spare time in practice between drills and a little bit after practice, I would just snap him the ball. I slowly got better and better and it all worked out for me in the end.”
Rob Maver came to Guelph knowing his route to the CFL would be on special teams as he joined the Gryphons as the team’s punter and place kicker. Now he’s the punter for the Calgary Stampeders.
“I actually tried out for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats before I ever came to Guelph so I was aware that any success for me was going to come through kicking the football,” Maver said. “That said, it’s something that I obviously have been able to appreciate for quite some time.
“Going to the next level, it’s not always going to be about playing defence or offence, it’s going to be about being a player who can play offence or defence and who can also excel on special teams.”
All the Gryphons who are in the CFL will have the same thing to say. Special teams is a good route to take to get to the pro level.
“It’s a privilege to be on the football field. It’s an opportunity,” Maver said. “Some guys are going to look at it and say ‘Oh, it’s not the most glamorous thing.’ Forget that. When you’re 24 years old, is it better to be covering a kick or is it better being in an office doing something you don’t want to do if you want to play football. A lot of these guys who have come from Guelph have embraced the role as a special teams player and that’s why you see a lot of us have moved on to have success in the CFL.”
And all who were the teachers at the Gryphon clinic wish they had had the opportunity to attend something like it when they were in high school.
“A lot of what I did was self-taught,” Maver said. “This was before YouTube and that stuff. I bought a couple of kicking DVDs, and it was just a lot of self taught and a lot of trial and error. That’s what I told these players. They’re not going to get immediately better today. They might get a little bit better today, but the knowledge (they receive at the clinic) is going to serve as a tool to help them get better down the road depending on what they are able to retain from today.
“We’re going to be giving them as much opportunity as they need for them to be able to take the onus on their skill development from here.”