INDIANAPOLIS — From 2007 through 2008, Wally Buono coached a defensive standout by the name of Cameron Wake as he tried to find his way onto a National Football League roster.
Buono, the head coach and general manager of the Canadian Football League's BC Lions, saw a guy in Wake who had all the tools to excel in the NFL, but for whatever reason, had been passed over time and time again since coming out of college.
In January 2009, after two dominant seasons in the CFL, Wake finally got the opportunity he was looking for and signed with the Miami Dolphins, and he has been one of the NFL's top pass rushers ever since.
Buono says he sees a lot of Wake in Alex Bazzie.
Bazzie has been a productive pass rusher the past three seasons with Buono's BC Lions, and this week signed a reserve/future contract with the Colts as he hopes to take his game to the next level, a la Wake.
While Bazzie (at 6 foot 2, 240 pounds) doesn't quite bring the same size as a guy like Wake (6 foot 3, 263 pounds), his physicality and ability to play in space has allowed him to be a consistent playmaker for the BC Lions' defense.
It's a bittersweet feeling for Buono, who says it's tough to lose a guy like Bazzie, but is always happy to see a player pursue his dreams.
"Same thing: Cam came out of Penn State, we gave him an opportunity, he excelled, he went down to Miami and has had some great years there," Buono said of Bazzie. "So the CFL gives young American players an opportunity to come to a country, play, get paid for it, but yet the NFL salaries are so much higher, you've got to feel good about a guy who can better himself and better his lifestyle."
Bazzie played in 50 career games with the BC Lions, registering 29.0 sacks among his 83 tackles with two forced fumbles, and was named a West Division All-Star in 2016, when he registered a team-high 11 sacks.
But playing in the CFL also afforded Bazzie the opportunity to continue excelling on special teams, where he shined for Marshall for his first couple collegiate seasons before becoming a mainstay on the Thundering Herd's defense.
In all, Bazzie had eight special teams stops with the BC Lions, and Buono thinks his former player can really make a name for himself in kick and punt coverage with the Colts — his natural pass rushing skills aside.
"In our league with our rosters not as big as an NFL roster, a lot of defensive starters play also on teams, and when you have to look at a player, you have to look at what else he can contribute to your football club, and Alex was always a very productive guy on teams because he runs well, and he's not a huge guy, so his body type is perfect," Buono said.
The legendary CFL coach added that Bazzie "runs well, he's very physical and he's tough."
"He's got good space awareness, and he's done this now all his life," Buono said. "Sometimes a lot of the maybe higher-profile players in colleges don't do a lot of special teams, because they're the stars on their football club. But Alex has been a well-rounded player, and he's been productive there and he's also been productive on defense."
Buono said it's always difficult to project how a CFL player will do once they hit the NFL ranks. While the CFL certainly features a lot of speed, the NFL game typically has much bigger and meaner guys, particularly up front on the offensive and defensive lines.
Under general manager Ryan Grigson, the Colts have now signed six CFL players to see how their game translates to the NFL, none of which has been more successful than linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who signed with Indianapolis in 2012 and became a four-year starter and the team's leading tackler.
Buono said Bazzie is "going to have to really hunker it down and get physical" now that he's in the NFL.
"I know now there's first-down players, there's second-down players, there's third-down players — so I would think the coach would have a vision of where he fits into what they do and how he would fit into the scheme they do defensively," Buono continued. "Maybe he isn't a first-down player initially. Maybe he's just a third-down player and a special teams player, because when you sign players, you've got to have a vision to where they fit into your scheme."
While Buono — who played for the same Montreal Alouettes teams of the 1970s where former great Colts general manager Bill Polian served as a scout — now has a hole to fill on his defense, he said he hopes Bazzie can carve out a successful career at the NFL in Indianapolis.
"Hopefully … he does a great job for you guys and he makes us all proud," he said.
(Photo via BCLions.com)