ORONO — Occasionally, Pat Denecke will watch video of a potential Canadian recruit, and he’ll see the move. What the player is doing is perfectly legal in Canadian football, but would earn a five-yard penalty in the U.S.

“Once in a while, we’ll see a couple funky motions on a kid’s highlight tape and get a good chuckle,” said Denecke, assistant head coach of the University of Maine football team.

Canada is one of Denecke’s primary recruiting territories, and he’s finding talent many NCAA Division I football programs overlook. When Maine opens its season Aug. 30 against Sacred Heart it will do so with seven Canadian players and two more from Europe.

The nine international players make the Black Bears – ranked No. 7 nationally in the STATS FCS preseason poll – an outlier among college football programs. By comparison, the other 11 teams in the Colonial Athletic Association have 11 foreign players combined. William & Mary, with three internationals, is a distant second to Maine.

UMaine’s formidable defense is led by junior linebacker Deshawn Stevens, who had a team-high 120 tackles last season. The Black Bears had the nation’s best run defense a year ago, allowing 79.2 yards per game. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A decade ago, Maine football had no foreign players. From 2012-15, the Black Bears had three each year. Even as recently as 2016, Maine had just two internationals, both from Canada. One of them was newcomer Deshawn Stevens of Toronto.

Stevens was redshirted that fall, but last year he was a second team all-conference pick at linebacker on a Maine squad that won the league title and advanced to the national semifinals for the first time in program history.

The Canadian players in Orono are a brotherhood, said Stevens, now a junior. “To have not one, but several of us here, is very special.”

Denecke can’t take credit for Stevens, who had already committed to Maine when the coach arrived at Maine. But Denecke’s work on the recruiting trail is paying off quickly.

Offensive tackle Liam Dobson (a junior from Ottawa) and defensive back Shaquille St-Lot (sophomore, Montreal) each started 12 games last season, with Dobson earning second team all-conference honors.

Other Canadians on this year’s team include sophomore defensive back Katley Joseph (Ottawa), freshman wide receivers Michael Monios (Montreal) and Clark Barnes (Brampton, Ontatio), and defensive lineman Justin Sambu (Rocky View, Alberta), a redshirt freshman. The Europeans are sophomore offensive guard Matthias Staalsoe of Copenhagen, Denmark, and freshman offensive lineman Max Lövblad of Märsta, Sweden.

Denecke grew up in Buffalo, New York, and attended a high school was on the shores of Lake Erie. On a clear day, you could see Canada, he said. Growing up near the border, Denecke knew there was football talent in Canada. When he arrived at Maine in 2016 as the tight ends coach, Denecke knew he could convince some of that talent to come to Orono.

“More and more kids are coming down to American prep schools, but the game is growing up there,” Denecke said. “There’s more kids playing. If you look at cities like Toronto and Ottawa and Montreal, they’re all over a million people. These are some of the biggest cities in North America. You get more kids playing the game, there’s more possibilities for us.

“The game’s growing in popularity. (British Columbia) players in high school play American rules. The NFL is so big, and even NCAA football is so big, they’re used to American rules,” Denecke said. “There’s a lot of (Canadian) prep schools playing American schools, so you’re not worried as much about a talent discrepancy.”

And Canadian football players seem eager to prove themselves.

Liam Dobson

“We bring a different perspective. We’ve played football with different rules,” Dobson said. “There’s very good football (in Canada). A lot of us played high quality opponents to get a chance in the states. We bring a mentality where we’ve had to work for everything.”

“Obviously, you want to prove you belong,” said former Black Bears linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga. A Montreal native, Mulumba Tshimanga is now in his third season with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. “My freshman year, I had a good year, and Coach Cos (former Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove) said he thought Canadians only played lacrosse. … You’ve got to earn your stripes.”

UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN

It’s not unusual for Division I rosters in sports such as basketball, soccer, and ice hockey to feature international athletes. Those sports enjoy worldwide popularity. There were more than 20,000 international students competing in NCAA athletics during the 2016-17 school year, including 4,166 Canadians at the Division I & II levels. NCAA statistics do not break down internationals by sport.

At UMaine, there are four programs – men’s and women’s basketball, field hockey and women’s ice hockey – where foreign players make up at least half of the rosters. The women’s basketball team has won America East championships the past two winters with a heavy influx of European talent.

Football, on the other hand, is primarily a North American sport, played with different rules in the United States and Canada. Traditional Canadian football is played on a longer and wider field than the American game, with 12 players to a side.

The rule variations are not a hindrance to recruiting Canadian players, Denecke said. Many, such as Stevens, have attended prep schools in the United States. Those who play football closer to home are often exposed to the American game.

Dobson played for Canada Prep Academy, a school near Niagara Falls in southern Ontario that routinely faced American competition.

“Every weekend we’d go travel to the United States to play American schools,” he said.

For Dobson, the biggest difference between the Canadian and American game is how he approaches his blocking assignment. Under Canadian rules, the defense must line up a yard behind the line of scrimmage. In American rules, the defender is already in Dobson’s face before the snap.

“In Canada, you have about a half a second to get your mind right,” he said.

Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga, who grew up in Montreal, starred at UMaine and is now in his third season in the Canadian Football League. Kevin Bennett photo

Mulumba Tshimanga played just a year and a half of football in Montreal before attending Kent School, a prep school in Connecticut. His transition from college football to the CFL was more difficult than the transition from high school football to UMaine.

“All I knew was American rules,” he said.

Like Mulumba Tshimanga, Stevens attended Kent. It was there Stevens first heard of his fellow Canadian linebacker who was doing great things at Maine.

“Sure enough my first camp, he’s my roommate,” Stevens said of arriving in Orono. “He’s the person who taught me how to carry yourself. The impact he had on this program is incredible.”

Stevens, who wears No. 6, considers his first few days as a Black Bear as some of the most important of his college football career. Mulumba Tshimanga, who also wore No. 6 at Maine, still inspires Stevens every time he pulls the jersey over his shoulder pads.

“Deshawn, he’s a great kid. He always wanted to learn,” said Mulumba Tshimanga, who was a senior during Stevens’ first year. “He’s like a little brother to me. He has the right attitude about everything. Not all freshmen show that character.”

CULTURAL IMMERSION

The biggest problem Denecke said he’s encountered in recruiting Canadian players is getting academic transcripts of players from Montreal, like St-Lot, translated from French to English. That wasn’t a concern with Staalsoe, who came to Maine after spending his senior year at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. At home in Denmark, Staalsoe played club football.

“It’s not the most popular sport, obviously. Soccer is more popular. It’s at the club level. You have to pay to play,” Staalsoe said. “The people who like football there, they really like football. You’ve got to like football. With the time zones, you’ve got to be up at 2 a .m. to watch (NFL games).”

Staalsoe pointed at Hjalte Froholdt, a Danish offensive lineman who played at the University of Arkansas and was selected in the fourth round of last spring’s NFL draft by the New England Patriots, as proof of football’s growth in his home country.

“There’s a community there, a Danish National Team,” Staalsoe said.

Staalsoe hasn’t tried to introduce his teammates to Danish culture.

“The food we have is kind of weird. They wouldn’t sell it here. I’d have to cook it for them,” Staalsoe.

Likewise, Dobson wants his fellow Black Bears to know one important fact about Canadians.

“We don’t eat poutine for every meal,” he said.

Now a third-year pro, Mulumba Tshimanga is flattered players like Stevens see him as a role model not just for Canadian players, but for all the Black Bears. He deflects credit for starting the wave of talented international players on the Maine roster.

“Other guys were there, not just me,” Mulumba Tshimanga said.

Mulumba Tshimanga had advice for young Canadian football players hoping to play for an American college.

“Don’t be afraid of anything. A lot of kids I know personally can play,” Mulumba Tshimanga said. “Ignore the hype around other guys. Trust you belong.”

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