CFL teams select four Australian punters in the first round of league's global draft

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TORONTO — Jake Ford knows where the next stop on his football journey will be, but remains unsure exactly when it will happen.

Ford, an Australian punter/kicker, went first overall in the CFL global draft Thursday to the B.C. Lions. But given the COVID-19 situation in Canada, the 2021 season might not start June 10 as scheduled.

"That's beyond my control," Ford said during a video conference. "There's no point me sitting around getting upset . . . I've just got to do what I've got to do."

Ford, 28, was one of four Australian punters taken in the first round. The others were: Joseph Zema (sixth overall by Montreal); Cody Grace (No. 7 by Calgary); and Joel Whitford (No. 8 by Hamilton).

The CFL cancelled the '20 season due to the global pandemic after being unable to secure a $30-million, interest-free loan from the Canadian government.

The league's return-to-play protocol continues to be examined by provincial health officials. At least one isn't sure when approval might come.

"We're not simply in a position to sign off on a return to play, " Ontario Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Lisa MacLeod told reporters Thursday. “We were getting close toward the end of March but I think it’s been very clear the health conditions across Ontario are not at a place where we can sign off on return to play.

"I will say on a bright side is the work I'm doing at the jobs and recovery committee of the cabinet does include what a framework would look like . . . but unfortunately just given the health-care situation we find ourselves in now that has all been delayed."

Last week, the Ontario government issued an emergency shutdown and stay-at-home order for residents. On Thursday, the province reported 4,736 new cases, a single-day high.

This season, CFL teams must carry two global players on their active rosters and they'll earn $54,000 apiece.

Ford, a native of Shepparton, Australia, played in the American-based Spring League in 2020. He moved to the U.S. in 2016 to attend the University of Oregon and also spent time at Saint Augustine's University in North Carolina and Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas.

Ford played rugby and Aussie rules football growing up before being invited to Prokick Australia, which helps Australian athletes transition to American football.

"I've always had a big kick and that transitioned into punting," Ford said from Little Rock, Ark. "I watched a lot of the CFL, I watched a lot of Josh Bartel (an Australian who's a CFL free agent after stints with Hamilton, Saskatchewan and B.C.), Ty Long (former CFL punter with L.A. Chargers) and Richie Leone (Ottawa punter).

"It's something I have good knowledge about and I'm excited to get up there and play."

Denmark's Steven Nielsen, a six-foot-eight, 307-pound offensive tackle, went second overall to the Edmonton Football Club. Nielsen, a Copenhagen native, attended high school in Indiana and played at Eastern Michigan before attending the Jacksonville Jaguars' training camp last summer.

Something Nielsen will have to adapt to in the CFL is a defensive lineman lining up a yard off the ball.

"I like to play aggressive in the pass game as well," he said. "I like to get on guys and bull them around but it's going to be hard now with that yard in between.

"I'm just excited to play football again. It's been a while since I put on a helmet and got to ball around some guys."

Nielsen also isn't worrying about when he'll head to Edmonton.

"I'm going to put it in the back of my head and keep training and staying in shape," he said. "Whenever the opportunity happens, then I'll be ready go to."

Ditto for Tigie Sankoh, a defensive back from England who was taken No. 3 by the Toronto Argonauts. Sankoh, who spoke to reporters from Africa, isn't concerned about Canada's COVID-19 situation.

"I've been wearing my mask, I think I'm cool," he said. "I've been working out so I'm just going to keep doing that until I get a call telling me to come up."

Sankoh, 23, was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Maryland before moving to London with his family at age 15. He signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 2018 as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, spending two years on the practice roster.

The Grey Cup-champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers took Les Mauro, a linebacker from Japan, fourth overall. Mauro grew up in Wichita, Kan., and played at the University of Texas-San Antonio, graduating in 2018 with an exercise science degree.

Mauro then spent two seasons with the Asahi Challengers of Japan’s X League.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders took German running back Christopher Ezeala fifth overall. The five-foot-11, 248-pound Ezeala spent 2018-19 on the Baltimore Ravens practice roster as part of the International Player Program Pathway.

Following the selection of the remaining three Australian punters, the Ottawa Redblacks completed the first round taking French receiver Anthony Mahoungou at No. 9. The six-foot-three, 210-pound Mahoungou, 27, played collegiately at Purdue.

Thirty-six players from 18 countries were picked over four rounds. Australia had the most players taken (seven), just ahead of Japan (six).

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2021.

The Canadian Press