The 2017 CFL draft class boasts a ridiculously talented top-5, and although much of the attention has been focused on names like Justin Senior, Antony Auclair, Rashaun Simonise and even Geoff Gray, UCLA nose tackle Eli Ankou could very well be the first overall pick come May.
The Ottawa, ON. native started his junior and senior seasons for the Bruins, impressively amassing 91 total tackles in 22 games. Ankou filled an uber-important role as the two-gap nose tackle in UCLA’s 3-4 defense, allowing elite NFL prospects such as Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley to flourish. Ankou battled an elbow injury in his senior year sustained in week 4, causing him to miss 2.5 games and play the rest of the season with a restrictive elbow brace. He put together an impressive season nonetheless, but was surprisingly not invited to the 2017 East-West Shrine Game, instead settling for the NFLPA collegiate bowl.
Part of this could be attributed to the fact that he only recorded 1.5 sacks in his college career, although I’d like to point out that he was rarely used as a pass-rusher, which is typical for true 0-techs that align head-up on the center, and will often be asked to QB spy in obvious passing situations.
Ankou has a great build, especially to play in Noel Thorpe’s or Devone Claybrooks’ defense. While perfect for his position at UCLA, 325-lbs may seem slightly heavy for the CFL, but considering he’s also 6-foot-3, Ankou carries his weight healthily. He has a bulky build, carrying a lot of it in his legs.
Ankou has a solid get-off, whether he’s timing the cadence or watching the ball. His first step isn’t consistently strong enough to withstand double teams, but he’s shown the ability to shoot gaps as a one-tech. For this reason, he’s scheme versatile. For example, Ankou could play the 0-tech in Montreal’s 4-3 shift defense, or the 1 and 2i-tech in Hamilton’s base 4-3 even.
Vision is one of the most important traits to look for in a nose tackle, and it happens to be Ankou’s best skill. Although he wasn’t the most physically dominant player, the Ottawa product amassed monstrous tackle numbers due to his ability to quickly locate the ball-carrier and adjust accordingly. His awareness wasn’t as good – I found multiple examples of Ankou falling for trap blocks, as well as being cut-blocked on zone runs – but the mental aspect of the position is a strength for Ankou regardless.
Ankou isn’t necessarily a consistently powerful player. His strength shows up in flashes, typically when his technique is sound. If his knees are bent and his hands are placed in the strike zone of the offensive lineman, he’s going to move people. He’s strong enough to keep his feet moving through contact, but didn’t always anchor down on run plays against double teams. In regards to his upper-body strength, it shows flashes as well. Ankou uses his torso strength to keep offensive linemen at a distance in one-on-one rushes, but didn’t display overwhelming block-shedding ability through his torso and hips to rag-doll offensive linemen.
3-4 nose tackles generally aren’t supposed to use finesse moves in one-on-one pass rushing match-ups, so its unclear whether or not he has the ability to consistently beat CFL offensive lineman with rip, club and swim moves. He has, however, proven to have quick, strong hands to get inside hand positioning on offensive lineman on bull-rushes. The battle of quickness and accuracy between offensive and defensive linemen to be the first to get their hands in the strike zone first on every snap is key to gaining leverage and winning the rep – Ankou excels in this.
Ankou’s pad level isn’t as consistent as scouts would like it to be, but he has shown the ability to really bend his knees, get lower than the offensive lineman, and power through. He didn’t have the raw strength to over-power PAC-12 offensive lineman when his pad level wasn’t good, but he won’t need to be as powerful in the CFL as he needed to be as a 0-tech in a 3-4 scheme in a tough conference. Ankou’s still very much welcome to use this off-season to get stronger in his lower-body, of course.
Ankou’s role in college was simple – gain control of the center on run plays to control both A-Gaps, and provide interior pressure on pass plays by bull-rushing or spying the quarterback on passing plays. In the CFL, he’ll have to run twists far more often – he almost never did with UCLA – and align in several different techniques along the inside of the defensive line. A dominant CFL defensive tackle must have a variety of pass-rushing moves in his repertoire – think of the spin, arm-over swim, rip, club and regular swim move – as well as the athletic ability to pull them off. There are a plethora of good scrambling quarterbacks up north, so tackling and closing speed is important, too. It’s not the same as closing speed, but Ankou’s raw speed to chase down quarterbacks or running backs from the back-side isn’t great. With that being said, I think he’s athletic enough to effectively run twists at the professional level. He’ll require good coaching to expand his pass-rushing repertoire, though, as he was simply not asked to do very much at all in these situations while with the Bruins.
Its easier than ever to get on an NFL training camp roster – see Lefevour, Dan – but especially for those fresh out of college after starting two seasons in the PAC-12. Boston College defensive end Mehdi Abdesmad, who was drafted in the third round by the Ottawa Redblacks in last year’s draft, spent all of 2016 with the Tennessee Titans, but there’s always a chance Ankou makes it no further than an NFL rookie mini-camp, similarly to Trent Corney in 2016 as well.
Ankou has the talent worthy of a top-2 pick, but don’t be surprised if he goes unselected until the second or third round because of NFL interest. At this point, though, its hard to say.
Projected round: Early First*
*Subject to pending NFL interest