Created:Friday, August 17, 2012 10:55 p.m.CDT

Stephen puts CFL future on hold

Courtney Stephen was drafted eighth overall in the CFL draft. (Rob Winner –

DeKALB — Courtney Stephen didn't believe the tweet that came up on the computer screen.

The Northern Illinois senior safety was in the computer lab at NIU's Reavis Hall on the afternoon of May 3, the day of the Canadian College Draft. The Brampton, Ontario native, was eligible for the Canadian Football League's annual draft as a Canadian citizen.

He figured he would be selected somewhere, but when he saw the tweet that had his name as the eighth overall pick by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the first pick of the second round, Stephen had to do a double take.

He seems to remember the tweet mentioning his name was from the CFL's official Twitter feed. But everything that happened still came as a shock to Stephen.

His girlfriend eventually sent him a congratulatory text message. But Stephen waited until he talked to Hamilton's owner and head coach before he got too excited.

"I didn't believe it," Stephen said after Friday morning's NIU practice. "I had to wait until I got the phone call to make it official."

Canadian, or "non-import" players are eligible for the draft after playing four years in college. Stephen played two seasons at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario before heading to NIU. He had to sit out as a transfer in 2010, taking a redshirt and making him eligible for the draft even though he has a year of NCAA eligibility left.

Even though Stephen opted to return to school, Hamilton will still retain his rights.

Stephen said the CFL, where teams are required to keep 20 non-imports on rosters, is somewhere in his future, and playing for Hamilton, Stephen would be just 45 minutes from his hometown.

But right now it's the furthest thing from his mind.

"I mean, right now I'm just focusing on this year. Because you only get to play NCAA football once," he said. "I think we've got a good team this year, and shoot, if we take our business here this year then I'll start to think about [the CFL]. But right now I'm just trying to make sure we get better and get ready to play Iowa."

Playing NCAA football at the Football Bowl Subdivision level is something Stephen had his eye on in high school. But by the time National Signing Day came around in 2008, there weren't any offers, only interest from Football Championship Subdivision schools.

After his sophomore season at Wilfrid Laurier, where he was a second team All-Canadian selection, Stephen talked to his brother Patrick, who was a three-time Academic All-American football player at NIU from 1995-98. Patrick Stephen thought his brother was talented enough to play in the Mid-American Conference.

Courtney Stephen reached out to former NIU head coach Jerry Kill, and earned a walk-on spot in 2010 while sitting out as a transfer. Last year Stephen earned a scholarship, but missed the majority of the season with a knee injury, and didn't practice during the spring either.

He's been limited most of fall camp before being fully cleared for Thursday's practice.

There was an adjustment playing at the higher level, but the smaller field helped Stephen's transition. Canadian football fields measure 65 yards wide, compared to 53 yards in the U.S. The end zones are also twice as big in Canada, extending 20 yards long.

That only helps Stephen's play in the defensive backfield.

"It's fun to run sideline to sideline," he said. "I think that's my strength personally. My range and my ability to be all over the place."

NIU defensive coordinator/safeties coach Jay Niemann expects Stephen to contribute on special teams this season while competing for playing time. He is listed as the backup free safety on the Huskies' preseason depth chart.

Niemann said Stephen is good at picking up the game, something that's helped his transition to American football.

"He didn't necessarily have the same level of experience as some of the guys coming in. But, he's really caught on quick," Niemann said. "In the classroom he's an exceptional student. I think that ability and the ability to learn quickly has carried over in football for him. I've been real happy with his progress."

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