Kyle Quinlan is the top player in Canadian university football, but the trophy he wants to cap his collegiate career is still one victory away.
The fifth-year McMaster quarterback won the Hec Crighton Trophy on Thursday night at the CFL Player Awards, but his attention quickly turned to the 48th Vanier Cup, where his Marauders will go for their second straight national title against the Laval Rouge et Or.
"The biggest prize is still out there," Quinlan said of Friday's rematch at Rogers Centre. "This is a great honour but individual awards are something that you look back on after the season. We have a good opportunity to still be playing football right now."
Although Friday's game will definitely be Quinlan's final game in the CIS, whether or not his career continues in the CFL is up in the air.
Quarterbacks from north of the border often take longer to develop compared to their American counterparts and do not count against the league's Canadian quota. Brad Sinopoli of the Calgary Stampeders was the only Canadian pivot on a CFL roster in 2012.
"If you're good enough they're going to take you. That's what I truly believe so you just have to get to that point where you are good enough despite your nationality," said Quinlan, who attended CFL training camps with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes the last two years. "They're going to hire whoever the best football player is, so I try to separate the nationality part of it and just try to get in there and prepare to help out a team."
Quinlan was definitely the best football player in the CIS in 2012, tossing 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He finished second in passing yards per game (307.1), third in total passing yards (2,407) and second in completion percentage, with a new single-season OUA record of 68.9.
Quinlan, who also led all quarterbacks with seven rushing TDs and tied for the CIS lead among pivots with 550 yards on the ground, is part of a McMaster program that is on a record 21-game winning streak heading into Friday's championship.
"I think Kyle may be the best CIS player ever. He is just such a big game player and always has been. The bigger the game, the better he plays," said McMaster head coach Stefan Ptaszek, who was named coach of the year Wednesday. "He is also a great leader and that is just as important a part of him as his physical abilities.
"Athletes like Kyle Quinlan don't come along very often."
The other nominees were Acadia Axemen quarterback Kyle Graves, Montreal Carabins running back Rotrand Sene and Calgary Dinos quarterback Eric Dzwilewski.
A native of South Woodslee, Ont., Quinlan led the McMaster to an 8-0 regular season and is the fifth Marauder to win the Hec Crighton, following fellow quarterbacks Ben Chapdelaine (2001) and Phil Scarfone (1984) and running backs Jesse Lumsden (2004) and Kojo Aidoo (2000).
The other award winners announced Thursday night were Laval linebacker Frederic Plesius, who captured the Presidents' Trophy as defensive player of the year, McMaster defensive end Ben D'Aguilar, winner of the J.P. Metras Trophy as most outstanding lineman, and McGill Redmen wide receiver Shaquille Johnson, who took the Peter Gorman Trophy as the nation's top rookie.
The CFL Player Awards, which are sponsored by Gibson's Finest, were held at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music. The building was coincidentally McMaster's original home in 1887 and the university is holding a celebration of its 125th anniversary there next week.
Plesius, the first member of the Rouge et Or to win top defensive honours, was also the Quebec conference's nominee in 2010. In his fourth campaign with Laval, the six-foot-one, 245-pound senior finished the regular season with a team-high 34.5 tackles.
Like Quinlan, his thoughts quickly turned to the CIS final.
"At the end of the day all I want really is a Vanier Cup. For me and my teammates, I want to finish my career at Laval on a good note. That's the main goal for me," Plesius said. "All I want this year is a Vanier Cup. This [award] doesn't really matter to me."
The Laval native also had two quarterback sacks and two pass breakups in league play in helping the Laval defence rank first in the country against the run (57.8 yards per game), second in least points allowed (12.7) and third in total yards against (298.2).
Plesius started his university career with the NCAA's Baylor Bears before transferring to Laval, where he was selected 10th overall by the Tiger-Cats in last spring's CFL Canadian College Draft. He was also invited to a mini-camp of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles last May.
Also nominated were St. FX lX-Men linebacker Brett Hubbeard, McMaster linebacker Aram Eisho and Calgary linebacker Mike Edem.
D'Aguilar registered at least one sack in seven-of-eight league games on his way to setting a single-season CIS record with 12.5. The previous national mark of 12 had been set back in 1988 by Leroy Blugh of Bishop's and tied in 1996 by Jim Aru of Queen's. The six-foot-two, 240-pound senior from Hamilton also amassed 28 tackles, forced a fumble and had a pass breakup in conference play to help the Marauders post the best defensive record in the OUA and the fourth best in the country at 15.6 points per game.
"Ben is a fantastic athlete and has only scratched the surface of his potential," Ptaszek said. "His ability to make things happen on the football field has been a great weapon for our defence and I think he has his best football in front of him."
The other nominees were Saint Mary's defensive end Rob Jubenville, Montreal defensive end Jean-Samuel Blanc and Regina guard Brett Jones.
Johnson, meanwhile, is the second McGill player to win the Peter Gorman Trophy, following Michael Soles (1986), who went on to a long CFL career with Edmonton and Montreal.
The 19-year-old from Brampton, Ont., led the Quebec conference in both receptions (61) and receiving yards (792), while achieving the fourth-highest single-season catch total in league history.
His 61 receptions are a new CIS record for a rookie, eclipsing the previous mark of 57, set in 2002 by Western's Andy Fantuz.
Also up for top rookie honours were Acadia running back Thomas Troop, Western running back Yannick Harou and Calgary receiver Brad Blaszko.
"As a person, Shaq is quiet, modest, and humble," McGill head coach Clint Uttley said. "As a football player, he has a natural feel for the game. He's extremely athletic and smooth."