March 28, 2023

Tales From The Scouting Trail: Aaron Sterling

South Carolina defensive end Aaron Sterling (15), R.J. Roderick (10) and Kingsley Enagbare (1) celebrate a recovered punt during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Many of the American players who enter the Canadian Football League have either come from small schools where they did not receive enough exposure or have fallen out of the NFL and were deemed a better fit for the Canadian game.

In University of South Carolina product Aaron Sterling’s case, he fits into neither of those more traditional pathways.

With 49 games played and 31 career starts across five seasons in the SEC, the highest level of college football, Sterling received significant exposure to NFL scouts. But his struggles with injuries and lack of ideal size for the NFL kept him from receiving an NFL contract prior to the 2022 season.

After a year of training and a brief XFL stint, Sterling signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers after we identified some of his qualities as a fit for our defensive line room.

For starters, when I reached out to current and former members of the South Carolina football staff who had worked with Sterling over several years, they all echoed the same sentiment: “This guy is tough as all hell.”

Sterling consistently muscled through injuries while in college and proved time and time again that despite a lack of ideal size for an SEC 5-technique (under 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds) he would not be overpowered by bigger, NFL-bound opponents at the line of scrimmage.

Staff members who worked closely with Sterling also noted that he was well-liked and well-respected in the locker room over the years, assuring me that he will fit in seamlessly with the ‘FIFO’ culture coach Mike O’Shea has established in Winnipeg.

While his intangibles of toughness and leadership were exciting to hear about, the athleticism on tape is what initially got our scouting department excited about potentially bringing Sterling to the team nearly a full calendar year ago.

When Blue Bombers fans come to training camp and watch defensive line drills, they’ll immediately see Sterling’s quick-twitch athleticism and explosive first step. He can threaten the corner and bend the edge in a way that is necessary for a defensive end to have success in the CFL. While it will be his first time playing a full yard off the ball on every snap due to the unique differences between Canadian and American football, Sterling’s game is well-suited to make that transition.

Although the young pass rusher is admittedly “sawed off”— a scouting term which means he has short arms for his position — his arm length disadvantage is often mitigated by very accurate and quick hands. Sterling keeps his chest clean very consistently, winning hand fights and gaining wrist control over offensive linemen. His technique in hand-to-hand combat will help challenge our offensive linemen to be at their technical best on every snap.

With speed, good hand technique, and toughness in all facets of the game, Sterling has the tools to be a good CFL player and will be given every opportunity to prove to NFL evaluators that he can overcome his size disadvantage before the league’s NFL window opens back up in December.

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 be bringing to camp.