After Friday's practice at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp, a handful of players stopped on their way off the field to conduct interviews with members of the press. In what may have been a first at One Buccaneer Place, one of those discussions was conducted entirely in French.
The subject of that interview was tight end Antony Auclair, a native of Quebec who played his college football at Universite' Laval in Quebec City. The Laval football program has only existed since 1996 and has yet to produce an NFL player, but Auclair could easily be the first. He's the subject of enough Canadian interest that Le Journal de Quebec sent a reporter, Richard Boutin, to Tampa to cover Auclair's welcome to the NFL. Boutin also came to the Bay area in January to report on the East-West Shrine Game, where Auclair showed he could hold his own among more traditional NFL prospects.
Photos of the Buccaneers' 2017 rookie mini-camp.
It was Boutin who spoke to Auclair after practice on Friday, with both using their native tongues. The Journal reporter knows his readers will have great interest in tracking Auclair's progress.
"It's a big deal," said Boutin. "Usually, most Canadians who reach the NFL go through the NCAA, but now a couple guys do their college in Canada. That does a lot to increase the interest among people [in Canada]."
Actually, the Buccaneers have another player in camp who followed the more common path described by Boutin. University of Maine linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga was born in the Congo and also lived in Belgium but moved to Quebec when he was five. He is in Tampa trying to make the roster on a tryout contract. In addition, the Buccaneers' offseason roster includes two former Canadian Football League standouts who signed with the team in January and are hoping to break through in the NFL. Wide receiver Derel Walker, formerly of the Edmonton Eskimos, is participating in the weekend camp while linebacker Jeff Knox, formerly of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, is watching from the sideline as he recovers from an injury.
Like an all-dressed potato chip, that's a lot of Canadian flavor at the Buccaneers' mini-camp this weekend.
Walker and Knox are Americans who went to the CFL after not initially making it in the NFL as rookies. Walker played at Texas A&M alongside Buccaneers star wide receiver Mike Evans. Knox played at California University of Pennsylvania. Both quickly became stars in Canada and, after two seasons of CFL ball, used that success to create another opportunity in the NFL.
Exactly 20 years ago, Shelton Quarles seized the exact same opportunity after his own stint in the NFL. He came to Tampa in 1997 and impressed immediately as a special-teams ace. He later emerged as a starter at strongside linebacker before moving to the middle in 2002 and winning both a Super Bowl and a Pro Bowl berth. He says the Buccaneers didn't make any extra effort to plumb the CFL this year; they just happened to find two gems that might follow his own path from two decades ago.
"They're just talented players," said Quarles. "We had an opportunity to bring a few guys from Canada in and work them out towards the end of the season and the guys that we got with Derel Walker and Jeff Knox are really good athletes. They might have a shot to prove their worth at this level. It's different playing up there – the field is longer, the field is wider, you play a lot more special teams. We got a chance to see what those guys could do up there and we think it can translate to our level."
The Bucs showed a lot of interest in Auclair, too, during the pre-draft process, particularly because they did not anticipate the draft's top tight end, Alabama's O.J. Howard, falling to them at #19 in the first round. Head Coach Dirk Koetter also said he was surprised to see Auclair go undrafted. Surprised and pleased, because that gave the Bucs a chance to lure him to Tampa.
"We did a lot of work on Antony, watching the Canadian film was interesting," said Koetter. "We were looking to improve our depth at our 'Y' tight end position. We thought Antony was a draftable player at tight end, we were excited about maybe drafting him in one of the later rounds. The fact that we were able to get him as a free agent – I think when you just look at our tight end group that we have out here, it's a good looking group. So, we're excited about Antony."
Clearly, Auclair is excited, as well, and highly motivated to be the rare Canadian-born player to make it in the NFL. Had he not given the NFL a shot, he likely would have been selected in the first few picks of the next CFL draft. This weekend, he has run routes alongside Howard and not looked at all out of place, either by size or speed and agility.
"I think I belong here," said Auclair, who praised the CFL but said the NFL was his first priority. "I think I've done some good things pretty far. I'm just going to do what I can to improve every day. It's been great so far. I still have some things to learn, for sure. I'm here to do that and get better every day."
Added Boutin: "He was among the top two or three prospects for the draft. His standing lost a couple ranks because of his interest in the NFL. I think it's a good fit for him here. There are only six tight ends under contract. You never know, maybe he can crack the 53-man roster or get a shot on the practice squad.
Walker wasn't drafted in the same year that Evans went seventh overall to the Buccaneers, but he got a shot as a rookie free agent with the Tennessee Titans. After that didn't work out, he headed to Canada, where he found a game played on a bigger field, with 12 men on both sides and slot receivers who can get a running head start before the snap. It was still football, and he excelled at it, which leaves him with fond memories of Canada.
"I loved it, I loved it," said Walker of the CFL. "I really enjoyed it. I feel like it gave me a bigger network; it branded me as a hot player up there and gave me another opportunity to come down here and play closer to home."
A handful of CFL players try their hand to making the NFL every year. Some of the more notable success stories, in addition to Quarles, are Cameron Wake, Warren Moon and Brandon Browner. Walker's advantage in trying to duplicate that sort of success is that he may have found a wide-open competition at the back end of the Bucs' receiving corps. That group is undoubtedly stronger with the additions of DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin to Evans and Adam Humphries, but the rest of the crew is mostly inexperienced players at this point. Walker will get a chance to compete.
"I've never really had a receiver coming out of the CFL before," said Koetter. "I really did get to look at him though, you know, last week in Phase Two workouts. Derel played with Mike Evans of course at Texas A&M, so Mike vouches for him. He's a guy that's got really nice hands. He's kind of going through a steep learning curve right now, so he's not able to maybe play as fast as he would like to. But, he's definitely an intriguing prospect."
Indeed, the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp is filled with Canadian-tinged intrigue this spring. While Mulumba Tshimanga still must earn a spot on the 90-man roster to continue his journey, the Buccaneers will move forward with at least three prospects who were playing north of the border a year ago. Perhaps one of them will emerge as the next Shelton Quarles.