TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie tight end Antony Auclair turned some heads on the first episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks" when he sang the Canadian national anthem for his teammates.
He caught head coach Dirk Koetter's eye long before that.
It was in January, at the East-West Shrine Game practices in St. Petersburg, not far from One Buc Place. Koetter saw a 6-foot-6, 256-pound prospect out of Laval Université, who was holding his own against far greater competition than he ever faced playing in Canada.
The Bucs had a goal of upgrading their "Y" tight end, a player responsible for run blocking and pass catching. It was a deep class of talented receiving tight ends, but they really wanted a player like O.J. Howard, who could do it all. They just didn’t think Howard would fall to them at No. 19.
Auclair fit the bill, however. The Bucs popped in some more tape on him and headed north for his pro day, along with 16 other NFL teams. They wound up signing him as an undrafted free agent.
"I’m very surprised that he wasn’t drafted," Koetter said. "We were excited about maybe drafting him in one of the later rounds. ... We feel like we got a real hidden gem, being able to get him as a free agent.”
Like Koetter, Auclair’s discovery of football came as a bit of a surprise.
“I think I was 12,” said Auclair in a thick French-Canadian accent. “I was watching a game with my dad [on TV]. I told him, ‘I want to play in this league,’ even though I had never played football before.”
When a lot of other youngsters in his hometown of Québec City were getting into hockey, Auclair wanted pigskin.
“I [was never] really a hockey fan,” Auclair said. “I don’t even know how to skate, to be honest with you.”
He chose Laval, a Canadian powerhouse that since 1996 has compiled a 127-36 record, with a 46-11 record in the postseason. The school also has nine Vanier Cups, the equivalent of the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Auclair's role there was as a "centre-arrière," much like that of a fullback. He caught 17 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns his senior year. In the 2016 Vanier Cup, he had six catches for 70 yards and a touchdown.
Canadian football rules are very different from American football. Unlike the 11-on-11 you see in the United States, Canadian teams play with 12 men on each side of the field. Those fields are 150 yards long and 65 yards wide. The distance goal-to-goal is 110 yards, with goal posts in the front of the end zone.
American football fields are 120 yards long, and 53.33 yards wide. The distance goal-to-goal is 100 yards, with goal posts in the back of the end zone.
In Canada, any number of offensive players can be sent in motion, whereas in the United States only one player is allowed and he can move laterally.
“Everyone’s set before the play. So it’s different,” Auclair said. “In Canada, we can move forward backward and sideways. Everyone can move so it’s a lot different.”
“I was a moving wide receiver, fullback, tight end -- I played a little bit of all the offense basically,” Auclair said. “So I had to adjust myself. The biggest adjustment for me was the line of scrimmage, because in Canada the D-line lines up one yard away from the ball so everything is faster here. So I’ve gotta get there a lot faster.”
He has found that having sound technique -- a must in run-blocking and pass protection -- has helped make that transition easier.
“At the end of the day, football is football,” Auclair said. “So a power play would be a power play and a lead play would be a lead play.”
Another adjustment he has had to make? The weather. The football season in Canada runs from mid-August through the end of November. By the season’s end, temperatures dip to an average high of 23 degrees Fahrenheit with a low of 8.
In Tampa, temperatures from May through September can hover in the high 80s to mid 90s. During training camp, it rains daily, making the air damp and heavy. The humidity feels like a trip to the steam room.
“We played in the snow in playoffs and stuff,” Auclair said. “It’s really hot down here. I pulled my hamstring [in organized team activities], a little tweak because I was dehydrated, so I’ve gotta get used to that weather of course.”
He has never had to weigh himself before or after a practice, but now he must in order to measure his hydration levels, as cramping is quite common in practices.
Things are getting easier for him, but he faces an uphill battle in a crowded tight-ends room.
Howard is stepping in right away to assume a starting role, while Cameron Brate, whose eight touchdowns were tied for the most in the league last year among tight ends, remains a favorite target of Jameis Winston.
Veteran Luke Stocker is considered the team’s best run blocker. Tevin Westbrook already spent two years in the league on practice squads for the Bucs and Titans, while Alan Cross saw action in 14 games last year and had a touchdown in Week 11. But Auclair's raw talent and potential is hard to overlook. It's not often a guy can stand eye-to-eye with Howard and still look imposing physically.
"That guy, to get him as a free agent is an unbelievable get for us," tight-ends coach Ben Steele said of Auclair. "We’re excited about his progress."
He also faces a statistical battle.
There are 16 Canadian-born players currently on active NFL rosters for 2017. Only five of them spent their college careers in Canada -- Auclair, Stefan Charles (University of Regina), Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff (McGill University), Brett Jones (Regina) and Jon Ryan (Regina).
While the changes may seem like a lot to get used to, and there are enormous sacrifices moving to a different country, it’ll be worth it in the end if he can make the Bucs’ 53-man roster.
“I would be the first guy from my school [to make an NFL roster]. I was the first guy to sign a contract,” Auclair said. “Obviously that’s the main goal. It would mean a lot to me.”