Brent Urban was the biggest guy in the league and wearing the largest skates he could buy when the towering Mississauga teenager decided to quit playing Triple-A hockey to concentrate on football.
Now the chiselled 6-foot-7, 295-pounder is one of the tallest defensive linemen available in this week’s NFL draft, and will likely be the first Canadian name called. Urban has drawn attention for his build and for leading the NCAA in passes knocked down last season, causing some draft gurus to compare his style to that of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt.
The experts project he’ll be picked anywhere from the second to the fourth round of the draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday, likely making him just the 26th Canadian to be drafted to the NFL.
Sweat ethic has brought Urban to this point, from the raw 15-year-old who used to finish football practice at Lorne Park High School and rush straight over to skate with the Triple-A Mississauga Ice Dogs, a team loaded with future NHL draft picks.
The physical left winger eventually hung up his skates at 16 and dedicated himself to building his body for the gridiron. He earned a scholarship to the University of Virginia and went from blocking high school kids half his size with 100 people in the stands to playing before 60,000-strong in football-crazed Charlottesville, Va.
“Playing AAA hockey, I learned how to compete against the best and to commit to all the hours of off-ice stuff, like running, conditioning and building strength,” said Urban by phone from Virginia. “I took a lot from hockey, but I grew out of it, literally. I felt football would be better for my potential, size and athleticism, and I realized I could really go somewhere with it.”
Urban had been serious about his hockey, playing with the likes of future NHL draft picks Ryan Ellis (of the Nashville Predators), Casey Cizikas (of the New York Islanders) and Jamie Devane (of the Toronto Marlies). He also played basketball and lacrosse. So like many Canadian kids, Urban didn’t pick up football until Grade 9.
“There are a lot of big kids that float through high school football, but slowly, Brent began to establish himself as special, and by the time he got to his senior year, he was a dominant force and we knew he’d be a good fit for the NCAA,” said Urban’s coach at Lorne Park, John Musselman. “He was lightning fast. The coaches would call him ‘The Ghost’ because no one could block him – they couldn’t even touch him.”
Urban had started a serious weight-training regimen by 16. He and his father Vic drove down to football camps in the U.S., where he would impress coaches and earn invitations to more camps. His vertical ability and speed in the 40-yard dash stood out for a player that height, and the scholarship offers began.
“People saw down there that he was perfectly fit for certain positions in football,” said his father. “They really recognized and validated him. In hockey, he was like the freak – too big. But in football, suddenly all these people were saying ‘this size and physique, this is just what we want.’ ”
When he arrived at Virginia – to locker rooms trimmed with mahogany equipment stalls and leather sofas and a highly competitive football environment – the reality of playing catch-up began. The coaches there knew he would be a project, but one worth the effort it would take to tutor him.
“Football is a religion there, and he was playing with very driven players who had started football at a really young age like we do here with hockey,” said his mother Ann. “Brent had a lot of learning to do, and he worked really hard to excel and exceed.”
Urban redshirted in his freshman year at Virginia, was a backup for two years, then a starter in 2012 and 2013 in the rigours of the highly competitive ACC. He adjusted through changes in coaching staffs and defensive schemes.
Last season, he started eight games before suffering a high ankle sprain, and despite missing the last four games of Virginia’s season, he still led the NCAA with nine pass knockdowns. There are few 6-foot-7 defensive linemen in the NFL, let alone ones as lean as Urban. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats drafted him in the second round of last year’s CFL Draft. But he’s determined to play down south.
“When NFL teams watched film, they would say to us ‘man, that big 99 can really move, he can do a lot of things,’ ” said Virginia head coach Mike London by phone from Charlottesville. “He won our Ironman award in the weight room. He’s got the height, girth, wingspan and athleticism. I think he’s going to be a steal for some NFL team.”
Draft experts agree he’s suited for the 3-4 defence. The ankle injury meant limited participation at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine, so his draft stock has dropped a little. But expects to be healed by training camp.
“The guy will hold up against the run, handle the double teams, bat down passes … he’ll be in those throwing lanes for the quarterback,” said ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper. “Urban has value. He’s a perfect 3-4 defensive end.”
Urban’s parents will make the 10-hour drive to Charlottesville to watch the draft on TV with him.
“I’m a Canadian who is getting a chance to play in the NFL,” Urban said. “Early on in my college career, I had a lot of ups and downs and never knew if it would be possible, but now that it’s here. I have a picture on my Facebook page of me tackling this small kid in high school. Now I’m hitting guys who are 6-foot-3, 220. It’s cool to look back at those pictures and think about where I am now.”