Thursday, May 23, 2024

HIGH HOPES: Redblacks take wide receiver with second overall pick

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After Edmonton Elks kicked off the proceedings by taking Cincinnati linebacker Joel Dublanko with the first pick, the Redblacks stepped up and selected Nick Mardner, a 6-foot-6, 208- pound wide receiver from Oakville.

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The Ottawa Redblacks helped their quarterbacks with the second overall pick in the CFL draft on Tuesday.

They took a pass catcher who should be difficult to overthrow.

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After Edmonton Elks kicked off the proceedings by taking Cincinnati linebacker Joel Dublanko with the first pick, the Redblacks stepped up and selected Nick Mardner, a 6-foot-6, 208- pound wide receiver from Oakville.

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Mardner, who played in just four games with Auburn last season, was overlooked in last weekend’s NFL draft, but has accepted an invite to attend the New York Giants mini-camp.

“He’s a great prospect in our eyes,” said Redblacks GM Shawn Burke. “He has size, physicality and speed. He checks all the boxes.”

Mardner was ranked seventh overall, and the No. 1 receiver, by the CFL Scouting Bureau this spring.

Before transferring to Auburn, he had 19 receptions for 218 yards and three touchdowns in 2022 with Cincinnati.

He previously suited up for Hawaii from 2018-2021 where he made 62 catches for 1,270 yards and nine touchdowns.

In total, Mardner caught 81 passes for 1,488 yards and 11 majors during his collegiate career.

“I’m thankful and blessed with opportunity, man,” Mardner said on a video call. “I’m blessed for any opportunity when it comes to football. I’m humbled and honoured.

“I want to prove to myself I am who I say I am,” he added. “Regardless of where it is, I need to show everybody what I’m really capable of.”

Mardner ran a 4.60-second forty-yard dash, 4.62-second short shuttle, and 7.43-second three-cone drill at his pro day in March, while recording 11, 225-pound bench press reps, a 35-inch vertical and a 129-inch broad jump.

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“There were injury concerns at Auburn and he never hit his stride,” said Burke, who said Mardner was dealing with a foot issue and a new system. “In the NCAA right now, it’s a bit of a different journey because of the transfer portal. When you look at his stops at Cincinnati and Hawaii and the big plays he made, it just made sense for us (to pick him) with how we had him ranked on our (draft) board.

“You always balance your board with your needs. When they match up together, it’s a great opportunity. We’re giving some young guys an opportunity at receiver this year; this isn’t a slight to Keaton (Bruggeling), Daniel (Oladejo) or Daniel Perry, but when you can get this type of playmaker with a draft pick, that’s what you ultimately want to do.

“He could be special in this league. It starts with getting him here first, we realize he’s going to (an NFL) mini camp. There’s a risk-reward factor, but we felt it was something we couldn’t pass on.”

Far too often last season the Redblacks had to settle for a field goal when their offence stalled inside the 20-yard-line. Mardner has the potential to help them fix that.

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“He’s a big target,” said Burke. “We want to be better in the red zone. It’s tough for guys to guard 6-foot-6 in that small space.

“The CFL is obviously unique. I’m not going to say he was at the top of our board; a couple of the guys at the top of our board went Saturday (in the NFL draft). But the need matched where we had him ranked on our board.”

Redblacks head coach Bob Dyce said “there’s lots of things to like about Nick” beyond his size and the fact he runs and jumps well.

“Probably the biggest thing for me, as a former receiver coach, I always talking about having violent hands,” said Dyce. “When the ball is up there, he’s a huge red zone target, and he goes up and plays with the mentality that the ball is his. He has the opportunity to be a real difference maker in this league …  plus he gives you the flexibility that he can play into the boundary and, as he progresses and plays the game more, he’s going to be able to move into the slot. So I think as he continues to grow in our game, when he gets here, he’s got a really, really high ceiling.”

As happy as they were to get Mardner, the Redblacks were downright giddy after selecting defensive lineman Daniel Okpoko with their second round (11th overall) choice.

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The 6-foot-4, 275-pounder was born in Lagos, Nigeria but grew up in Saskatoon. From there, he headed to California, where he played 37 games over five seasons with the San Diego Aztecs.

“You guys know I have a pretty serious face most of the time and I’m out here smiling,” Burke said to media members in the hallway at TD Place. “We liked Daniel Okpoko a lot and we did not think we were going to get the opportunity to select him at this spot. We have an excited war room in there.”

The Redblacks expect Okpoko will benefit from the guidance of respected veteran defensive lineman Cleyon Laing.

“Obviously I can’t say enough about Cleyon,  and for him to learn under a guy like Cleyon and have that opportunity … (and to) add some depth to our rotation,” said Burke. “We see him as a potential CFL starter one day, not today, but one day. He was very productive last year at San Diego State. Athletic traits, big, physical has played some end as well but we probably see him more as an inside guy.  But we’re ust excited to get him in the building.”

In rounding out their draft, the Redblacks selected big (6-foot-2, 220-pound) defensive back Dawson Pierre (third round, 22nd overall), Nepean-born wide receiver Jahquan Bloomfield (fourth round, 35th overall), defensive back Yani Gouadfel (sixth round, 49th overall), linebacker Zachary Philion (seventh round, 58th overall) and tight end Russell Dixon (eighth round, 67th overall).

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Philion is the son of Ed Philion, a former first round of the Calgary Stampeders who went on to play eight CFL seasons and then embark on a career as a coach in the league.

With their first pick (second overall) in the Global draft held Tuesday morning, the Redblacks selected punter Matthew Hayball, a native of West Adelaide, Australia, who has spent the past two season with Vanderbilt.

Hayball, who averaged 47.6 yards per punt in 2023, signed a contract with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints on Monday.
“We expect Matt to go to the main (NFL) camp so it’s more of a long-term play,” said Burke. “What long term means, I don’t know. If something happens and he doesn’t earn (an NFL) job, he’s talked about his willingness and openness to playing in the CFL. It’s not to take anything away from Richie Leone; he’s the best punter in the league. But you’re going to hear it day in and day out in training camp — compete, compete, compete. When the time comes, if he does come up here, we expect Richie and him will compete.”

Their second pick was linebacker Heston Lameta, a 25-year old product of Pago Pago, American Samoa, who last season started 11 games at North Arizona.

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A 6-foot-1, 230-pounder, Lameta had 56 total tackles, 16 solo tackles, a tackle for a loss and a forced fumble in 2023.
“(Lameta) sort of fits the some of the similar traits of guys we have here from a global program,” said Burke. “He can backup if we wanted to keep a global on the roster as a linebacker, special teams, physical, aggressive runs well. Interested to take a look at him. He will probably be a little more of a project, but you have to be prepared in football to make decisions, and ultimately that linebacking group was one we wanted to identify in both drafts probably, and he was the best guy available.”

dbrennan@postmedia.com

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