By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
It’s back to football for David Onyemata.
After months of testing and not knowing where he’d be playing next, the Manitoba Bisons defensive lineman was taken in the fourth round, No. 120 overall, by the New Orleans Saints in the NFL draft Saturday.
Onyemata was the lone Canadian drafted.
“It’s good to know now where I’ll be going,” Onyemata said via telephone shortly after being selected. “It’s been different (the last few months) having to think about so many things.
“It’s back to football now.”
Onyemata was golfing with friends when he got the call from the Saints.
“It was my first time golfing so that was the funny thing,” he said. “It was kind of a struggle early but once I got that phone call, I started hitting the ball really good.”
A number of Canadians bypassed in the draft later signed free-agent deals. They include: Boston College defensive lineman Mehdi Abdesmad of Montreal (Tennessee), Iowa receiver Tevaun Smith of Toronto (Indianapolis), Calgary defensive back Elie Bouka of Montreal (Arizona) and Michigan State defensive back Arjen Colquhoun (Dallas).
Saturday was a historic day for the six-foot-three, 300-pound Onyemata, who became the first Manitoba player ever drafted by an NFL squad. He’s also the fourth Canadian university performer selected in eight years, joining McGill offensive tackle Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (sixth round, Kansas City, 2014), defensive linemen Akiem Hicks of the Regina Rams (third round, New Orleans, 2012) and Vaughn Martin of the Western Mustangs (fourth round, San Diego, 2009).
The Nigerian-born Onyemata began playing football five years ago but was Canadian university football’s top lineman last season. Earlier this week, he was named the top prospect for the CFL draft May 10.
Onyemata is represented by Carter Chow, whose office also counts NFL star quarterback Tom Brady as a client.
Onyemata impressed at his pro day, registering 33 reps in the bench press, which would’ve been tops among defensive linemen at the NFL combine. The Saints were among 17 clubs from south of the border at the workout.
The 23-year-old also posted a 33-inch vertical and broad jump of nine feet 11 inches.
Onyemata was projected as a fifth- or sixth-round selection. Scouts were impressed with his “powerful frame,” arm length, explosion and ability to hold his ground against power.
But they suggested his lack of football experience was a concern, saying it might be a few years before he’s ready to contribute on a regular basis. The Saints, who had the NFL’s No. 31-ranked defence last year, also took Louisville defensive lineman Sheldon Ranks in the first round, 12th overall.
“He’s a guy you’d say is a self-made guy,” Saints head coach Sean Payton told The NFL Network regarding Onyemata. “He’s one of those guys that has had to accomplish a lot to be where he’s at right now.
“I know just from his training and what type of work ethic that he has, we’ve got a real strong vision. Initially inside in the sub-rush but we think he can play some end in the base. He’s got the makeup you’re looking for.”
Onyemata sees being able to play both defensive tackle and end in the NFL.
The selection of Onyemata was surprising, given Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings — who some had considered a first- or second-round prospect — was still available and went two picks later to Cincinnati.
“Here’s the tough part for me is he (Onyemata) is a project,” said NFL draft guru Mike Mayock. “Not sure if he’s ready to play yet but if you draft him in the fourth round you can’t put him on the practice squad because he’s so talented somebody will take him from you off the practice squad.
“So he’s going to have to stay on your 53 (man roster) and I’m not sure he’s ready to contribute today. But, wow, does this young man have some upside.”
Onyemata is looking forward to continuing to learn the game in New Orleans and anxious to make football his top priority.
“It will still be the same workload (as combining football with school),” he said. “You still have to study for something and work hard.”
Onyemata was a Canada West all-star in 2015 for the second straight year and earned his first All-Canadian honour. He captured the J.P. Metras Trophy as Canadian university football’s top down lineman after registering five sacks, 38.5 tackles and 7.5 tackles for a loss.
He was one of three CIS players who participated in the East-West Shrine game in Florida in January.
Onyemata will become the second Bisons player to reach the NFL, joining former defensive end Israel Idonije. Idonije, also a native of Lagos, Nigeria, grew up in Brandon, Man., and signed with Cleveland as a free agent in 2003.
Idonije spent 11 seasons in the NFL with Chicago (2004-2012) and Detroit (2013). He helped the Bears reach the 2007 Super Bowl and was a finalist for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award following the 2010 season.
Idonije has taken to mentoring Onyemata, with the two speaking via telephone Friday night. Onyemata said he sincerely appreciates the feedback and advice he’s received from Idonije.
“Definitely,” he said. “I just feel so fortunate to benefit from his football (experiences).
“He paved the way for Canadians and those going to school in Canada to get to the NFL.”