March 4, 2023

Tales From the Scouting Trail: Finding the hidden gem

Working in scouting in the Canadian Football League, we must truly turn over every rock to find the most talented players available.

Oftentimes, that includes sorting through players who had NFL opportunities but became free agents for one reason or another. But in other occasions, such as in the case of DeAundre Alford, it includes mining for the hidden gems the NFL missed on coming out of college.

Alford was used to being overlooked and having an underdog mentality, which made him a perfect fit in our secondary in 2021. It started in high school, when he came to the game of football in his senior year and was under-recruited as a result.

The Griffin, Georgia native ended up walking on at a D-II program, Tusculum University, where he quickly earned a scholarship and became one of the best players in the South Atlantic Conference. But when it came time for Alford to prepare for the NFL Draft, the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way, eliminating his Pro Day opportunities and pushing him off the NFL radar.

With no NFL teams bringing Alford in for a tryout, assistant general manager Danny McManus’ wealth of connections led to Tusculum head coach Jerry Odom reaching out to recommend his star defensive back. And while he was forced to sit and wait after the 2020 CFL season was canceled due to the pandemic, Alford was ready when his time came prior to the 2021 campaign.

“(Alford) is a guy that is always thirsty to raise his football IQ,” coach Odom told Sports Illustrated in September 2022. “A lot of guys are talented, but the difference is being able to know how you fit within a concept understanding the route concepts of that concept that are weaknesses and doing your best to take away the routes that they love against a certain concept.”

Along with his smooth hips and quick feet, that keen understanding of route concepts coach Odom described immediately helped Alford ascend in the defense backs room, allowing him to quickly adjust to the Canadian game and become a Week 1 rookie starter.

After just one season in Winnipeg, the first-year cornerback established himself as CFL All-Star, Grey Cup Champion, and a force that the NFL could no longer overlook.

Taking advantage of the CFL’s yearly NFL window, Alford began lining up tryouts with NFL teams, creating a bidding war for his services. Suddenly, after one season in Winnipeg, the overlooked defensive back was in high demand.

While he had a dozen tryouts initially scheduled, Alford decided to eschew several of those tryouts to sign with his hometown team, the Atlanta Falcons, on a reserve/futures contract.

A few months later, as us Blue Bombers scouts made our NFL training camp rounds in August, Danny Mac visited the Falcons in Flowery Branch, GA for a few days to watch practices, writing “Atlanta says he’s trending up nicely” at the end of his updated report on Alford. Indeed, he continued to trend in the right direction all through camp. When I saw him practice in joint practices against the New York Jets in Florham Park, NJ just a few weeks later, he took a several snaps with the first-team defense and clearly belonged.

He went on to spend the entire season on the Falcons’ active roster, showing signs that he’ll be in the NFL a long time while earning above average Pro Football Focus grades across the board.

Alford is just one of the recent Blue Bombers studs to jump to the NFL, and the mentality, perseverance, and passion he showed in Winnipeg is exactly why he performed so well and was ultimately able to achieve his childhood dreams of playing for his hometown team.

Cyril Penn is a Blue Bombers U.S.-based scout and he will be writing regularly for through the spring, providing an inside look at some of the American prospects the club will bringing to training camp.