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[ODDS and EVENS] Yosuke Sugano Continues Pursuit of Football Dream

After two seasons at Syracuse University, Yosuke Sugano is preparing to play for the X League's Obic Seagulls. He aims to play in the CFL and NFL in the future.

For Yosuke Sugano, playing in the NFL is his ultimate dream as an American football player.

To achieve his goal, Sugano says he recognizes that hard work and improvement are important, interconnected tasks.

Sugano wrapped up his American college football career as a Syracuse University linebacker on December 21, 2023, appearing in the Boca Raton Bowl against the University of South Florida. The Hyogo Prefecture native had two tackles and a sack in a 45-0 loss.

Although the Syracuse Orange football season ended in a disappointing fashion, Sugano, 25, accomplished a major goal in his two seasons at the upstate New York school: getting a chance to practice and play (he appeared in a combined five games in 2022 and '23) at the highest level of American college football.

Syracuse is one of 134 National College Athletic Association (NCAA) teams making up the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.

Sugano also participated in Syracuse's Pro Day on March 18 at the university's Ensley Athletic Center. It was an opportunity for seven ex-Orange football players along with selected former players from smaller schools in the region to be evaluated by scouts from nearly all of the NFL's 32 teams. 

Players participated in standardized drills that measure their speed, strength and agility. They also took part in specific drills for their individual positions.

A total of 257 players were selected in the seven-round NFL Draft on April 25-27 in Detroit ― and there were thousands of draft-eligible players. 

Yosuke Sugano
Linebacker Yosuke Sugano participated in Syracuse's Pro Day on March 18. NFL scouts tested players in a variety of drills to measure their overall speed, strength and agility. (Courtesy of Yosuke Sugano)

Yosuke Sugano Returns to Japan as a Player

So what's next for Sugano as a football player?

In a series of short interviews with Odds and Evens in recent days, Sugano outlined his plans and aspirations for 2024 and beyond.

First up: Sugano aims to become an impactful player for the X League's Obic Seagulls

He's expected to make his debut in Japan's top-level American football league in the Pearl Bowl Tournament in June. The Pearl Bowl Tournament final is set for June 16 at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki.

Look for Sugano, who is 5-foot-10 (178 cm), to line up at both linebacker and defensive end for Obic.

Indeed, productivity on the field during games is important to him. He also noted that Syracuse's Pro Day in March was a valuable experience that revealed what should be a primary focus of his workouts: aiming to increase his speed.

Yosuke Sugano
Lifting weights was a regular part of Yosuke Sugano's training regimen during his two years at Syracuse University. (Courtesy of Yosuke Sugano)

Focus on Getting Faster in the 40-Yard Dash

Specifically, Sugano acknowledged his time in the 40-yard dash (5.1 seconds for the 36.5-meter test of speed) doesn't presently match the high standards of the Canadian Football League and the NFL.

"I will try to focus on my 40 [-yard] time this year, so that I will have a chance to get drafted next year," Sugano said, referring to the CFL.

The 2024 CFL global draft (for non-North Americans) was held on April 30, with 18 players selected. Australia dominated the list with seven draftees. No Japanese were selected, though Japanese players have competed in the CFL in recent years. 

Looking back on Syracuse's Pro Day, Sugano described it as a helpful experience in showing him what his strengths and weaknesses are.

"I was able to do my best performance, especially in the three-cone [drill] (designed to measure how fast a player can change direction as he accelerates), 20-yard shuttle and bench press," Sugano said. "However, I think my time in my 40s has to get better for next year's combine for the CFL."

He added, "Although I could not get drafted in the CFL global draft, since I will keep playing football this year and I got interest from some CFL teams this year, I will keep on challenging [myself] to try to go to the CFL next year."

Mike Phair, the new head coach of the X League's IBM Big Blue, is aware of Sugano's ambition to play in the CFL, according to Sugano. And the longtime former NFL and CFL coach, has offered advice to Sugano.

"We've been talking about my possibility of [playing in] the CFL," Sugano recalled. "He told me that my scores except the 40s are really good."

Yosuke Sugano
Former Syracuse linebacker Yosuke Sugano in action against Wagner College on October 1, 2022. (Syracuse Athletics)

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Sugano Embraces Being a Role Model

Asked to reflect on his college football career and his quest to become the first Japanese to play in the NFL, Sugano said various events are tied together and challenge him to keep striving toward his ultimate goal.

"Not only Syracuse Pro Day motivated me, but also me being Japanese motivated me even more," Sugano commented. "Right now, the Japanese football market is still really small.

"My goal is to become an athlete, not only a football player, to spread the greatness of football into Japan," added Sugano, who told me in 2022 that he hopes to become a football coach in the future.

Before joining the Syracuse football team in 2022 as a graduate transfer student, Sugano attended Saint Francis (Pennsylvania) University and played in all 23 combined games in the 2019 and 2021 seasons. The 2020 season was lost due to COVID-19.

Sugano listed retired New York Giants defensive lineman Michael Strahan and current Buffalo Bills star outside linebacker Von Miller as his two favorite NFL players. 

For folks in Japan, Sugano's college football career in the United States was a source of inspiration. And on social media it also provided a steady supply of questions from Japanese students interested in learning more about his journey.

 "I got a lot of DMs (direct messages) or messages that encouraged me," Sugano said, "and that asked me how to go to a US college from high school kids." 

And what's his basic message to Japanese students?

"Dream big," Yosuke Sugano stated. "Do not think it is impossible for Japanese players to play in the NFL or college football [in the United States]."

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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