Ranking college football’s best international players for the 2016 season. Here are the sport’s top imports.
Football, the American edition, has become an international phenomenon, with popularity and participation rising on every continent. Unlike a generation ago, though, when simply backing an NFL franchise sufficed, today’s nomadic young athletes dream of actually playing in the NFL.
Since becoming a pro requires an apprenticeship at some institution of higher learning, it’s no wonder that many college rosters now feature at least one player from outside the United States’ borders.
Mining 50 states for personnel is no longer enough for today’s coaches, who fully realize that Canada, Australia, Europe and American Samoa are home to hidden, often undeveloped gems. While passports and a translation guide are required, importing raw athletes from overseas can pay long-term dividends, especially for schools looking for strong legs on special teams.
The following student-athletes have spent most of their brief lives in a foreign land, yet each has adapted well to new environments, new cultures and a sport that in all likelihood wasn’t their first love growing up.
DT Elu Aydon, Oregon State (Pago Pago, American Samoa), NT Robert Barber, Washington State (Tula, American Samoa), DT Faith Ekakitie, Iowa (Brampton, Canada), OT David Knevel, Nebraska (Brantford, Canada), OG Fred Lauina, Oregon State (Nuuuli, American Samoa), WR Brayden Lenius, Washington (North Vancouver, Canada), P Jonny Linehan, BYU (Auckland, New Zealand), RB Akeel Lynch, Nevada (Toronto, Canada) and P Daniel Pasquariello, Penn State (Melbourne, Australia)
16. DT Elliot Hoyte, Boise State
Hometown: Tavistock, England
Now that he’s a senior, Hoyte is being counted on to be one of the Broncos’ defensive leaders. It’s a far cry from the player who arrived in Boise four years ago unsure of his surroundings or his ability to compete at a much higher level that he was accustomed in Europe. The 6-4, 276-pound Hoyte has been a role player up to this point, earning his only career start last fall. But he’ll have a shot in 2016 to help fill the void left by the four seniors who comprised the two-deep for last year’s Poinsettia Bowl.
15. OT Chidi Okeke, LSU
Hometown: Anambra, Nigeria
Okeke’s journey to Baton Rouge reads like a Disney script. The Nigerian’s past few years have been a whirlwind ever since being plucked out of the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation sports camp to seemingly play basketball in the states. Okeke switched to football shortly after arriving in Miami, relocated to Georgia and improbably developed into one of his new country’s premier O-line prospects. While there’s a ton to learn, LSU is willing to be patient with a project the team feels will pay dividends in another year or two.
14. OT Sunny Odogwu, Miami
Hometown: Ezeagu, Nigeria
Has there been inconsistency in Miami? No doubt. But the Canes remain optimistic about the 6-8, 325-pound junior who didn’t take up football until his senior season of high school. Odogwu actually came to the states at the age of 16 to play basketball, eventually giving up the sport after being told he was too physical for the hardwood. Football seemed like a natural progression for the kid who was looking to snap the cycle of poverty that gripped his small and undeveloped village in Nigeria.
13. P Will Gleeson, Ole Miss
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
Gleeson’s output slipped in 2015 to just 40.7 yards per punt. Still, the Rebels are bullish on the trajectory of their junior punter. Gleeson has only been playing American football for three years, developing his leg talent in Aussie Rules Football like so many of his countrymen. He employs a rugby-style delivery to limit the opposing return game, and his all-around athleticism makes him a valuable safety net on the last line of the Ole Miss coverage unit.
12. P Michael Dickson, Texas
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
The Horns needed a punter last year. The fact that Dickson, an Aussie Rules Football player, had no experience with the American game was something Texas felt it could work around. What the staff knew is that Dickson was a good athlete and a hard worker who could put a dent a ball with his right foot. And based on the early returns, which included honorable mention All-Big 12 recognition, UT should be set at the position for the next three seasons.
11. DT Neville Gallimore, Oklahoma
Hometown: St. Catherine’s, Canada
True, Gallimore hails from north of the border, but he’s not the typical Canadian footballer. His high school in St. Catherine’s, Canada Prep Football Academy, exclusively faced American opponents, so competition level is not a concern. And Gallimore dominated before getting to Norman, en route to a flood of offers from major programs. After redshirting in 2015, he’s in a much better position to compete for playing time this fall in the Sooner defensive tackle rotation.
10. PK Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin
Hometown: Sao Paulo, Brazil
Like most children growing up in Brazil, Gaglianone dreamt of kicking a round ball through an 8×24 futbol goal. Fate, however, carried him in a very different and improbable direction. The Sao Paulo native was introduced to American football while at Baylor High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and he quickly realized an aptitude for splitting far slimmer uprights. Gaglianone has made 37 field goals in his first two seasons as a Badger, though he’s looking to rebound this year from a decline in his accuracy in 2015.
9. OT Gerhard de Beer, Arizona
Hometown: Pretoria, South Africa
De Beer just might be the second-coming of Cincinnati Bengal DE Margus Hunt. de Beer, like Hunt at SMU, arrived from overseas with a scholarship to throw the discuss on the track and field team. And he’s excelled in that endeavor, earning All-Pac-12 in each of the last two years. But de Beer has also taken up football, something the former rugby player knew little about when he got to Tucson. He’s been a quick study, though, and is expected to be Arizona’s starting right tackle in 2016.
8. OG Hjalte Froholdt, Arkansas
Hometown: Svendborg, Denmark
If Froholdt blossoms as much in the next three years as he did in the last three, he could have an All-SEC ceiling before he’s done in Fayetteville. From Danish club player in the small town of Svendborg to foreign exchange student in Ohio, he succeeded in catching the attention of American college coaches. Plus, Froholdt is evolving at warp speed, lettering as a true freshman defensive tackle in 2015 before moving to the O-line and grabbing the lead at left guard this past spring. At a school with a reputation for developing maulers, he’s on the right campus to continue his unlikely ascent.
7. DT Eli Ankou, UCLA
Hometown: Ottawa, Canada
After star lineman Eddie Vanderdoes suffered a season-ending injury early in 2015, Ankou got his first crack at the starting lineup. And now that Vanderdoes is on his way back and Ankou has 11 starts on his resume, the Bruins believe they’re ready to overcome the loss of Kenny Clark to the Green Bay Packers. As a teen, the powerful Ankou actively participated in a variety of U.S. camps in an effort to get noticed, ultimately landing an offer from former UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel.
6. DT Daniel Ekuale, Washington State
Hometown: Pago Pago, American Samoa
Few schools do a better job these days of recruiting the Pacific Islands than Wazzu. And Ekuale is the latest American Samoa native poised to make a run at All-Pac-12 honors. He was a key contributor in 2015, chipping in 22 tackles and five stops for loss on a line that included fellow Samoans Destiny Vaeao and Robert Barber. But now that Vaeao is a Philadelphia Eagle, the 6-3, 296-pound Ekuale will be counted on to be even more assertive at holding the line and stuffing the run.
5. OT Andreas Knappe, Connecticut
Hometown: Silkeborg, Denmark
Growing up in Denmark, Knappe was an elite archer and avid handball player, hardly the prerequisites for a career in the NFL. But despite taking up football at the ripe age of 18 in his homeland, the senior is beginning to attract the attention of pro scouts. Knappe is a nimble 6-8, 319-pounder, with his best days still very much in front of him. Yeah, he’s raw, but there’s plenty of time and a base of talent and strength just waiting to be molded into a more complete blocker.
4. S Shalom Luani, Washington State
Hometown: Masausi, American Samoa
Watching Luani hit in practice and on Saturdays, it’s hard to believe he was a Samoan soccer legend not long ago. The island’s all-time leading scorer has carved out an impressive niche in American football, even if he needed two JUCO stops before arriving on the Palouse. Luani provided an instant impact—literally—in his debut out of City College of San Francisco. He not only started every game for Wazzu, but he also earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 for making 90 tackles, three stops for loss and four interceptions.
3. LB Rommel Mageo, Ole Miss
Hometown: Pago Pago, American Samoa
Oregon State has had a long history of recruiting the Pacific Islands, so Mageo left a lot of familiarity behind in Corvallis when he elected to transfer. He’s a key addition for a Rebel D searching for a successor to C.J. Johnson at middle linebacker. Mageo just arrived in Oxford, but there’s hope he can win the starting job shortly after hitting the practice field. He was one of the Beavers’ top defenders in 2015, posting a team-high 87 stops and forcing five turnovers. Mageo is a sturdy 6-2, 233-pounder, with the intensity, physicality and speed to adapt to his new surroundings. As a one-year stopgap up the middle, he’ll be a big plus at Ole Miss.
2. P Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
Hometown: Geelong, Australia
Johnston is the rare punter who thought about turning pro early last December, indicative of his ability as a special teamer. He’s the latest in a growing line of pupils to train under Nathan Chapman at Melbourne’s Prokick Australia. The former Aussie Rules Football player is one of the country’s top returning punter, rising to the All-Big Ten Second team with a 44-yard average in 2015. Johnston has a chance to finish his Buckeye career prominently listed in the program’s record books.
1. OT Justin Senior, Mississippi State
Hometown: Montreal, Canada