Global players taking on bigger roles as CFL season enters stretch run

The Canadian Football League is rounding the corner into the regular season stretch run and with just six weeks left in the shortened 2021 campaign, Global players are playing a bigger role than ever before.

Each of the league’s nine teams is required to dress one international athlete per game and so far 20 players from 11 different countries have succeeded in living their pro football dreams in 2021. From game-changing punters thriving on the CFL to starting caliber offensive linemen, special teams’ demons to defensive contributors, almost every team has at least one Global making an impact.

For a look at how each of those active roster participants has fared, here is a look at their performances from West to East.

Niklas Gustav, DE, B.C. Lions (Germany) – Gustav jumped into the Lions lineup in Week 3 and hasn’t left. The former NAIA standout with Morningside College has five special teams tackles in six games played, not bad numbers for the last pick in the Global Draft.

BC Lions LB Niklas Gustav

Jake Ford, P, B.C. Lions (Australia) – The first overall pick in the Global Draft was solid in the first two weeks of the season as B.C.’s punter, but had to miss the Lions’ Week 3 game in order to receive his U.S. Green Card. American Stefan Flintoft showed off a big leg in his absence and the aforementioned Gustav performed well, meaning Ford hasn’t seen the field since.

Steven Nielsen, OT, Edmonton Elks (Denmark) – The Great Dane from Eastern Michigan made one emergency start for Edmonton in Week 2 against Montreal and has been the sixth offensive lineman for much of the season, but fell out of the lineup in Week 10 due to the club’s struggles on special teams. That could soon change back, as more injuries along the offensive line make Nielsen a valuable player to have.

Tibo Debaillie, DT, Edmonton Elks (Belgium) – Debaillie made the Elks’ active roster out of training camp, dressing in the team’s first two games and playing on special teams without making a mark on the stat sheet. The roster shuffle has seen him on the practice squad since, but the former Towson Tiger remains a viable option for Edmonton

Maxime Rouyer, LB, Edmonton Elks (France) – With special teams a pressing concern, Rouyer was added to the Elks’ lineup in Week 10 to beef up the cover teams. He didn’t fix the issues, but he did add a special teams tackle in his lone appearance.

Cody Grace, P, Calgary Stampeders (Australia) – Grace has been simply exceptional since claiming the punting job in Calgary and his 45.9 yard average doesn’t do him justice. When field position is taken into account, CFL analytics expert Derek Taylor has Grace averaging more than six more yards than expected per punt. That’s the second highest number since he began tracking the metric.

John Henry Nell, K, Saskatchewan Roughriders (South Africa) – Seriously lacking Global talent, Saskatchewan dressed Nell as an extra kicker for the first three weeks of the season, using him as little more than a clipboard holder and tee delivery system.

Chris Ezeala, DE/FB, Saskatchewan Roughriders (Germany) – A late addition who joined the club in Week 5, Ezeala hasn’t quite had the impact some expected, and his role remains small. In six games, the former Baltimore Raven has yet to get on the statsheet.

Thiadric Hansen, DE, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Germany) – In 2019, Hansen was the Global program poster boy after recording five defensive tackles, two special teams tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles in 21 games, including playoffs. So far this year, he’s played just nine and is on pace to shatter his previous marks with five defensive tackles, nine special teams’ tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in that span.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers DE Thiadric Hansen

Les Maruo, LB, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Japan) – Maruo has been left out of the roster shuffle the past few weeks but he proved his worth early in the year. The former UTSA Roadrunner posted six special teams tackles in seven games to start the year.

Sergio Schiaffino Perez, DB, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Mexico) – Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea said during training camp that he would seize any opportunity to get his feisty Mexican DB a shot at game action in his second season. That chance came in Week 9 against B.C. and Schiaffino Perez took full advantage, notching his first ever special teams tackle.

Joel Whitford, P, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Australia) – A minor injury held Whitford out of a handful of games this season, but he is still the punter of choice in Hamilton. The University of Washington product is averaging 44.7 yards per punt this season.

Valentin Gnahoua, DE, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (France) – Hamilton put Gnahoua in the lineup as soon as he was up to speed after a brief absence from training camp because of the trust that special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold has in him. He’s been an important blocker in eight games but only has one special teams tackle in kick coverage.

Asnnel Robo, RB, Toronto Argonauts (France) – Despite his small stature, Robo’s speed and toughness has earned him more opportunities in his second CFL season. The 5’7 back has played all nine games for the Boatmen, making three special teams tackles.

Tigie Sankoh, DB, Toronto Argonauts (United Kingdom) – A highly coveted first round pick in the Global draft, Sankoh’s consistent absence from the Toronto lineup has surprised some. The former Cleveland Brown did dress in Week 8, recording a special teams tackle in his lone appearance.

Tyron Vrede, LB, Ottawa Redblacks (Netherlands) – No surprise to those who watched him at North Dakota, Vrede has become a contributor for the Redblacks early in his CFL career. He’s recorded five special teams tackles thus far and has got into the defensive rotation each of the last two games, notching a defensive tackle in each.

Ottawa REDBLACKS LB Tyron Vrede

Christopher Ferguson, OT, Ottawa Redblacks (Bahamas) – A beat up Ottawa offensive line has forced Ferguson into the lineup at left tackle the past two games, making the Nassau native the second Global player to start in the CFL this year. He’s been serviceable in the role, just as he was at the University of Cincinnati.

Joseph Zema, P, Montreal Alouettes (Australia) –  Zema has bee among the most consistent in this rookie class of Aussie punters and one of the better specialists in the East Division, averaging 46.1 yards per kick.

Taku Lee, RB, Montreal Alouettes (Japan) – One of the highest profile Global players in a skill position, Lee has earned his way into the lineup for the last four games. He’s made a pair of special teams tackles in that span and became the first Global to carry the ball, returning a pair of kicks for 48 yards in Week 7.

Montreal Alouettes RB Taku Lee

Takeru Yamasaki, K, Free Agent (Japan) – After winning B.C.’s starting kicker job in training camp, Yamasaki’s whirlwind CFL journey lasted just two weeks. He became the first Japanese player to ever score a CFL point, but struggled with consistency under pressure. He went just 4-of-8 in two games, badly shanking a few chip shots before being released by the club

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.