Benjamin St-Juste: Path to the NFL DRaft
Since the formation of the NFL, 107 players have made the journey south of the Canadian border to forge a career in the league. Minnesota cornerback Benjamin St-Juste is hoping to add to that number and hear his name called in the 2021 NFL Draft.
“It’s big, you know. Coming from a small country of only like 34 million people compared to the US with like 380 million people. Not that many people make it out of Montreal, Canada. It’s big. I’m super honoured. It’s super hard. The path that I took was super hard.”
From Canada To Cleveland
259 players will be selected in Cleveland next week. Not many will have travelled the road that Benjamin St-Juste has just to get to this point. From Montreal, via Oregon, Michigan, Minnesota, and finally Mobile, his journey has seen him cover many miles, overcome many obstacles, and spend many hours away from friends and family.
Although his path to the 2021 NFL Draft has been more arduous, and it’s start point somewhat further north than almost every other prospect in the class, his football origins have a comforting familiarity to his American contemporaries. Like most young kids who want to play the game, football truly begins with family.
“My Dad played football and basketball at a high level. He was really good, made Team Quebec in basketball and football also. Had the chance to get invited by the Miami Hurricanes in 1986 to play safety. But he got injured and he didn’t get the chance to fulfil his full dream. When, I was really young he was coaching me about football, giving me some techniques, stuff like that. I just wanted to be like pops, be like my dad, you know? Growing up in Canada, everyone wants to play hockey, everyone wants to go to the NHL. I wanted to be the kid that was different, be the kid that played football and made it to the NFL out of Canada.”
The fatherly influence was more than just an aspiration to follow in his footsteps and try to carve out a football career. The father-son relationship doubled up as a player-coach relationship at the Pop Warner level where Benjamin St-Juste’s football journey truly began.
“He obviously knew a lot about the game, he was also a coach on my Pop Warner team when I was a younger kid all the way from nine up until 14. He was giving me a lot of knowledge, we would train at the park together. Credit to him for how fast I grew as a football player and how quickly I learned things because he really helped me become a better player.”
Like many players at that level and even early into his high school playing days, Benjamin St-Juste played a multitude of positions. As a result, his early football influences – his father aside – were an interesting mix of some of the best NFL players at multiple positions.
“When I first started, I wasn’t a defensive back yet, I was an all-round athlete. I was a running back, wide-receiver, safety, corner. At running back, I really liked Ricky Williams, an older player for the Miami Dolphins. I liked his attitude, his personality, but also how good of a running back he was. When I transitioned to becoming a real defensive back, that was at the same time when Richard Sherman was becoming a really good cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. We were the same size, so I really liked him. I really liked Darrell Revis for the Jets. He had a great technique, had a great press-man technique, man to man. Those two corners were really the first two that I really appreciated and studied their game.”
In addition to Revis and Sherman, several other high-profile cornerbacks helped smooth the transition from being an offensive star to a full-time defensive back. Offensive players may get all the plaudits, but even at a young age Benjamin St-Juste knew he had the physical attributes to command a similar level of attention as a cornerback.
“Especially as young kids you always want to have the spotlight on you. You want to be the star, the guy the catches the touchdowns, get the celebration and all that stuff. But, as I started to get older, I saw that with the physical attributes I had, how big and tall I was, I could really be a one-of-a-kind at the defensive back position. All the corners were shorter. There were a few guys that made the position really like a star position. Back in the day, Deion Sanders, Sherman, Jalen Ramsey now-a-days who make the cornerback position popular again. Now, guys get paid a lot more money to be defensive backs.”
Forcing Teams To Take Notice
He took all those influences and physical attributes on to the high school field for Cégep Du Vieux High School in Montreal. A fast and physical cornerback, Benjamin St-Juste exploded onto the scene as a high school senior after a relatively quiet junior season. His 30 tackles, 9 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, and 18 pass breakups, was the sort of production that would normally see college programs flooding a prospects inbox with messages, mailboxes with offers, and them beating a path to the front door.
That’s where the challenges of the path to the NFL Draft for a kid from Canada become glaring obvious in comparison to the normal route to the league.
“I played in the Quebec RSEQ which is one of the best conferences in Canada for football. We have a really high level of football. We produce a lot of players that went to the NCAA for Division I football. So, I was able to really develop and become better in that conference as a player and a person because we had great resources. Obviously, since there’s only a select few people that go the United States and play Division I football it’s really hard to get recruited. Recruiters don’t come to Montreal, or Quebec, just to recruit people for colleges. So, you have to drive down or – at your own cost – fly, to go do camps in the US because they don’t come and recruit. We don’t have camps, we don’t have a website to be ranked and all that stuff.”
The recruiters wouldn’t come to Benjamin St-Juste so the kid from Canada had to go to them. Making the long journey south, he travelled over 3,000 miles to get to Nike’s “The Opening” event in Oregon, in addition to attending camps on college campuses to try and get his name known and working harder than your average high school player to show off his skillset. Meanwhile, he had to maintain the education and athletic balance.
“It was hard. I had to make sure I passed all my classes in the spring and winter with good grades so that in the summer I’d have no summer school or tutoring so I could have my summer free to do those camps. After that, the camps were like $500 so I had to put half from money I’d saved from my birthday and working and then ask my parents for the other half. It was like 10-11 hours to drive to Michigan to go to their camp so there was a lot of road trips, a lot of sacrifice, just to go and do one camp. That’s how hard it is for Canadian football players to get the attention of US college coaches.”
Ann Arbor Attention
One camp in particular proved to be the catalyst for Benjamin St-Juste’s college football career.
“The University of Michigan had a camp back in 2015, a three-day camp. I showed up with one of my friends, and performed very well for the three days and I actually got a chance to get a full scholarship to go to that school. That’s what started my high school recruiting process because I got my first offer from Michigan and after that everyone was like “who’s this kid from Canada with a Michigan offer? Who is he? Is he good?!”. So that attracted a lot of attention to me, and a lot of other colleges started ringing my cell phone and sending me mail and stuff.”
Despite the attention from other teams, including an offer from Virginia Tech, the offer to play for the Michigan Wolverines proved too tempting to resist.
“They had a really good team, the 2016 edition had a really good season. They had really good coaches in place. And my parents were really happy that it was a really good football team but also that they had really good academics. It was the number one public school in America so even if football didn’t work out, I could get a diploma from one of the best schools in North America.”
Having come to Michigan from Montreal, there could have been an expectation that Benjamin St-Juste would take a redshirt season to acclimate to the college football game. However, the star cornerback from Canada carved out a role on special teams immediately while seeing game-time as a backup defensive back in three games.
The special teams experience as a freshman is something that will prove valuable in the NFL.
“It’s really important. It’s not glamourous, it’s not the best thing to do, it’s not for everyone because it’s really hard to be good at special teams. But, if you want to see the field, if you want to be on the field, produce, and help your team as a freshman and as a rookie in the NFL, it’s the easiest way to do it. I kept the same attitude and work ethic my entire college career and as I go into the NFL it’s as important as being able to place defense. That’s what makes me special.”
Primed to breakout as a sophomore in 2018, another obstacle was placed in Benjamin St-Juste’s path to the NFL Draft. After suffering a hamstring injury, he lost the entire season.
“It was super hard being by myself. All my family being back in Canada, they couldn’t really come and see me, or help me in person, or guide me. I was one of the first out of my family to really go to a big university like that. So, nobody really knew how to get over those obstacles. As a young 18, 19 year old kid at Michigan but it was pretty hard. But I knew I had the work ethic and the talent to make it out, so I just kept working hard and staying humble.”
Medically Retiring? Think Again
If overcoming the injury setback wasn’t hard enough, the circumstances around it proved to be even harder. In what became a confusing and complicated situation from the outside looking in, Michigan stated that Benjamin St-Juste would be medically retiring from the game as a result of his injury.
Meanwhile, the Canadian cornerback had other ideas.
“It’s actually really simple. There were two options, either I transfer or I can’t play for the team anymore. They were trying to give my scholarship to somebody else, to medically retire me. It’s just a business move. As much as playing football is fun and all that other stuff, it’s also a business and generates a lot of money. If you’re not meeting some of the standards or get on the bad side of a relationship with a coach then they can switch and get somebody else and replace you really fast.”
Benjamin St-Juste replaced Michigan as fast as they’d replaced him. Having entered the transfer portal, it wasn’t long until college programs were reaching out to him. Within moments of him tweeting that he’d graduated from Michigan, the Minnesota Golden Gophers were reaching out to secure the promising young cornerback.
“Minnesota were the first team to offer me when I was in the transfer portal. I took an official visit there and I didn’t waste any time. I felt comfortable. Another Big Ten school, same conference and stuff. It was close to home so my parents could come and see me play. At that point when I was transferring from Michigan, it didn’t matter what team it was, I just wanted to play and prove myself. It turned out to be a great fit with Minnesota.”
Minnesota Magic & COVID Adversity
It turned out to be an incredible fit for both player and program. The Golden Gophers enjoyed their most successful season since the days of Murray Warmath and prior to that, Bernie Bierman. Led by their energetic head coach P.J. Fleck, Minnesota went 11-2 and beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
Furthermore, Benjamin St-Juste showcased his playmaking ability, leading a strong Minnesota secondary with 10 pass breakups, good enough for third in the Big Ten conference.
“It was great. Just the fact that I transferred in to Minneosta so late. I got adjusted real quick and it was my first year really playing at my position. I never really started playing before. The season that we had, we had some great battles, some overtime wins. Learning from a guy like Antoine Winfield who is super intelligent, super smart football player, his dad is a legend, being around those type of guys and having the historic season that we had with 11 wins plus a bowl win. It was a season that I will remember forever because of all the things that we accomplished, and we had fun doing it.”
The 2020 season wasn’t as fun for Minnesota or for their star cornerback. Against the backdrop of global uncertainty, the Big Ten conference cancelled their season and then opted to play a reduced schedule leading to disruption for all concerned.
“There’s a lot of things that goes into it. Our whole season got cancelled, the uncertainty of not having a season and then being brought back. The season getting cut to only eight games. No fans, my family hasn’t been to see me since March of 2020 because of travel restrictions between countries. All that stuff wears you down physically and mentally. We played football, but we paid the price.”
Senior Bowl Exposure
The 2020 season marked the end of Benjamin St-Juste’s college football journey. Following the conclusion of the season he declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. However, it wouldn’t be the last opportunity to don the golden helmet of the Minnesota Golden Gophers as his performances caught the eyes of Jim Nagy and the staff at the Senior Bowl, earning him an invite to Mobile for a particularly important All-Star game in the 2021 NFL Draft process.
“It was awesome. Big credit to Jim Nagy and his staff for having the Senior Bowl and sending me an invite. Especially in a year like 2021, scouts and NFL teams have limited time to really see a player physically, how he plays the position, so the Senior Bowl is going to play a huge role in the NFL Draft. That helped me a lot because they saw how good I learn, how good I can become. They only saw a little glimpse of what I can do, and I did very well during the week. It was very well organized. I had the chance to be with the Miami Dolphins staff, so I learned a lot about what it’s like to be around an NFL team – what to do, what not to do – worked on my technique and actually go against some of the guys who are going to be drafted super high. I was super honoured to be there.”
In addition to working closely with the Miami Dolphins, Benjamin St-Juste had the opportunity to interview with every NFL team in attendance in Mobile. A large number of reports coming out of the Senior Bowl suggested particular interest from the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Obviously I had the chance to talk to every team. Certain teams that like the man to man, press concept on the defense are going to like me a little bit more because that’s what I played a lot in college. Those types of teams always tend to have a little more extended meeting with me, just because I fit their type of scheme.”
Tall at 6’3” and long with an 80” wingspan, it’s easy to see why Benjamin St-Juste excels in press-man coverage. His long arms enable him to jab at the line of scrimmage, disrupting the receiver’s route early in the play. Despite a lack of college interceptions – an area he acknowledges as having room for improvement – his length also allows him to make plays in coverage whether that is in contested catch situations or by getting his arms through to make a play on the ball.
"One Of Those Picks No Team Will Regret"
Asked for a game that best demonstrates those abilities to an NFL team, the Minnesota cornerback points to two games early in his Minnesota career.
“Either my first game as a starter against Purdue or Iowa in 2019. Those two games. I got targeted a lot so I got the chance to show my talent, show my coverage skills and run support. That’s not even all of it because I didn’t get to do all that I wanted to. So, it gives you a little glimpse of how good I can, and how good I can be in the future. Those two games really show my athletic ability and what I can bring to the table.”
Athletic, versatile, and competitive, on the field, Benjamin St-Juste’s difficult path from Canada to the 2021 NFL Draft has also instilled a hard-working mentality of off it. It makes him a valuable and desirable prospect for an NFL team to hang their hat on.
“I’m a sure pick. You can’t go wrong with me. There’s no disadvantage picking me, only advantages in terms of versatility, competitive toughness, trust-worthy person, responsible. I’m one of those picks that no team will regret.”
Flying The Flag
Being drafted to the NFL has been a dream for Benjamin St-Juste since he was a kid growing up in Canada. With that dream in sight, he’s already thinking ahead so that the next generation of Canadian kids with a dream and an aspiration don’t have to travel such a hard path to make it to the league.
“My goal when I’m done playing football is to inspire some more kids back home to make it. To make it easier for them, give them some more resources, and advice and knowledge so that we can have even more Canadians in the future in the NFL.”
For now, Benjamin St-Juste can look forward to flying the flag for Canada in Cleveland.
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Huge thanks to Auzoyah Alufohai for taking the time to speak to us.
Also to his agent, Tony Bonagura, for connecting us.