MINNEAPOLIS -- When Benjamin St-Juste announced in early May he was transferring from Michigan, the Gophers swooped in.
Danny Collins, a defensive quality control assistant, kept a close eye on potential cornerbacks to fill a roster need, and when St-Juste made it official, he texted defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, who was driving on a highway.
Given their need at the position, Rossi quickly pulled over to direct message St-Juste on Twitter. “Right there — boom — we were on it,” he said.
St-Juste said Rossi was one of the first coaches to reach out. He got right to the point.
“It was, ‘Call me right now,’ ” St-Juste recalled. “ ‘We are going to set up a visit. You are going to come here and you are going to love it.’”
Within two weeks, St-Juste had committed to Minnesota as a graduate transfer, and the 6-foot-3, 200-pound cornerback made his first start against Illinois last week. He is expected to have a similar role when Minnesota (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) plays Nebraska (4-2, 2-1) on Saturday night, Oct. 12, at TCF Bank Stadium.
In his first start Saturday, St-Juste had five tackles, one for lost yards, and two pass breakups. He had three tackles and two pass breakups in a 38-31 win over Purdue two weeks ago.
The Montreal native is the son of a French mother and Haitian-born father who emigrated to Canada at age 8. St-Juste started out like most Canadians boys playing hockey but “wanted to be the different guy.”
He tried to follow in the footsteps of his dad, Wilbert, who was on the Miami Hurricanes roster as a safety in 1989 before he broke his leg in preseason camp. While he had a bit of a pedigree, Benjamin still had to scratch for attention while playing football in an outpost like Canada.
He tried out for the Quebec national team but didn’t make the final cut and decided he needed to attend camps in the U.S. He won the MVP Award at his first camp in Albany, N.Y., and at age 17 went to the Wolverines’ camp in Ann Arbor in June 2015.
“(I) went there not with an intention to get a scholarship or anything, just trying to test my skills with the American football players,” he said. “It turns out all the coaching staff there really liked it, and coach (Jim) Harbaugh offered me my first scholarship.”
In Quebec, high school ends in the 11th grade, so most students go on to a junior college-like system called CEGEP. St-Juste attended and played for Vieux Montreal Spartans, one of the best programs in the top tier.
“He’s a pretty athlete,” said former Vieux Montreal head coach Cherif Nicolas. “He was always tall, lanky and was able to run, so we really liked that. He played at a power high school down in Canada, so we were really happy to recruit him and get him.”
Canadian football fields are 65 yards wide compared to 53L in the U.S. — more space for a cornerback to cover, often on an island.
“The field is so big here that the boundary is where everybody tries to throw,” Nicolas said. “He was our shutdown guy there. He made a lot of plays.”
After becoming a four-star prospect and a top-rated recruit in Canada, St-Juste played as a true freshman at Michigan, mostly on special teams. He made three total tackles.
In 2018, a hamstring injury suffered in spring practices nagged him throughout the fall and he didn’t play in a game. A Michigan spokesman told mlive.com that St-Juste “elected to medically retire,” but that was clearly not the case when he announced his plans to transfer in May.
“It was my time to leave,” St-Juste said Wednesday. “I had a chance to get my degree there. It’s in the past now. It was a hard time for me, but now I’m here, and I’m happy I got my second chance.”
The 22-year-old has received a medical hardship waiver for 2018 to give him eligibility this year and in the 2020 and ’21 seasons. Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck has sought graduate transfers with multiple years of eligibility. Nose tackle Micah Dew-Treadway transferred from Notre Dame to play this year and next.
While at Vieux Montreal, St-Juste had to take science classes and prep for the ACT. The native French speaker also needed to learn English, at first so he could talk to college football recruiters.
“That made his course load really heavy, and I told him this is going to be difficult,” Nicolas said. “But he put his head down and passed every class. That really impressed me. … Sometimes kids’ dreams are bigger than their effort. His work ethic was equivalent to his dream.”
More attention is now being paid to Canadian players, with Syracuse taking more notice than most programs, and St-Juste is doing what he can to help young players to carve out their spots.
“Kids look up to me and send me messages, ‘How you do this?’ ” St-Juste said. “I’m always open. ‘This is what you need to do. That’s the work you need to put in to be in the same position I’m in.’ ”