College Football’s Top International Imports
College football is increasingly becoming an international sport, with nearly every FBS roster featuring at least one player who began life in a foreign land.
Football, the American version, continues to be an international phenomenon, with popularity and participation soaring on every continent. Unlike a generation ago, though, when simply rooting for an NFL team sufficed, today’s nomadic young student-athletes dream of actually playing on Sundays. And since becoming a pro requires an apprenticeship at some institution of higher learning, it’s no surprise that most college rosters now contain at least one player from outside the United States borders.
Traversing 50 states for personnel is no longer enough for today’s coaches, who recognize that Canada, Australia, American Samoa and even Europe are home to hidden, often undeveloped gems. While passports and a translation guide are sometimes required, importing raw athletes from overseas can pay long-term dividends, particularly for programs searching for powerful legs on special teams.
The following players have spent most of their young lives on foreign soil, yet each has adapted well to new surroundings, new cultures and a sport that in all likelihood was not their first love growing up.
12. DE Ade Aruna, Tulane
Hometown: Akure, Nigeria
The Nigerian native has only been in the United States for five years. And he played basketball before trying football for a single season in high school, so he’s understandably raw. However, the learning curve keeps getting flatter, and his freakish athleticism has afforded the Green Wave staff plenty with which to work. The 6-6, 265-pound Aruna used his size and closing speed collected a career-high 10 tackles for loss and five sacks as a junior, setting the stage for a possible salary run finale.
11. OT Sunny Odogwu, UCLA
Hometown: Ezeagu, Nigeria
Odogwu missed the mark at Miami, hampered by injuries and inconsistency. But the playful 6-8, 325-pounder, who knows plenty about second chances, is getting an opportunity to impress pro scouts as a UCLA grad transfer. Odogwu didn’t try football until his senior season of high school. He came to the states at 16 to play hoops, but abandoned the sport after being told he was too aggressive. Football was the logical alternative for the teen who hoped to break a cycle of poverty that gripped his undeveloped Nigerian village.
10. P Jonny Linehan, BYU
Hometown: Auckland, New Zealand
An All-American flyhalf and three-time All-American, “Jonny Rugby” was first introduced to Cougar Nation on the pitch. However, his strong leg and accuracy on directional boots have begun to benefit the football squad as well. In just his second season trying the new sport, Linehan averaged 42.5 yards per punt. Furthermore, 30 of his 57 attempts landed inside the opponent’s 20-yard-line, while BYU ranked No. 6 nationally in lowest punt return average allowed.
9. WR Chase Claypool, Notre Dame
Hometown: Abbotsford, Canada
Claypool is one of the best players to ever come from British Columbia and a receiver the Irish staff is bullish on entering 2017. Concerns about Claypool’s ability to make the jump from a Canadian high school to major college football were addressed on special teams in 2016. Now, the 6-4, 224-pounder, who’s drawn favorable comparisons to former Irish standout Jeff Samardzija, is angling for a bigger role on offense. Equanimeous St. Brown will be Brandon Wimbush’s undisputed favorite target, but there are openings in the passing game for a second and third option.
8. PK Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin
Hometown: Sao Paolo, Brazil
In a Big Ten crammed with Groza Award contenders, Gaglianone is eager to contend with the best of them in 2017. After missing most of last year following back surgery, the colorful and excitable Badger is healthy again and pain-free. Gaglianone has made 44-of-57 career field goal attempts, including 7-of-8 a year ago before being going on the shelf. He has a big leg to match his big personality, first learning to strike with authority as a soccer player in his hometown of Sao Paolo.
7. DT Daniel Ekuale, Washington State
Hometown: Pago Pago, American Samoa
Few programs are doing a better job these days of mining the talent-rich Pacific Islands than Washington State. And Ekuale is the latest American Samoan set to make a run at All-Pac-12 recognition. Following in the footsteps of former Cougar teammate Destiny Vaeao, now a Philadelphia Eagle, Ekuale is a powerful force on the interior, with the quickness to get penetration. He started nine games a season ago, making 23 stops and 2.5 tackles for loss, while helping anchor an underrated Wazzu front wall.
6. DE Jonathan Kongbo, Tennessee
Hometown: Surrey, Canada
Kongbo lists his hometown as British Columbia, where he first began playing football, but he was actually born in the war-torn Congo. Kongbo’s zigzag route to Knoxville has also included stops at the University of Wyoming and Arizona Western College. But the journey could be worth it if he can parlay all of his natural ability into NFL looks. At an athletic 6-6 and 264 pounds, Kongbo possesses the requisite measurables to excel in the SEC. And with the departure of Derek Barnett and the full-time shift to end, the former JUCO star is being counted on to ignite the Vol pass rush.
5. P Tom Sheldon, North Carolina
Hometown: Echuca, Australia
Sheldon was an underrated—and unorthodox—addition for North Carolina a year ago. The southpaw came to Chapel Hill by way of southeastern Australia, which is becoming increasingly common these days, but at 27 he was the oldest member of the Tar Heel roster as a freshman. While Sheldon averaged 42.7 yards a punt, he was particularly effective at limiting returns with his hang time and placement. Carolina led the country in punt return defense, allowing a remarkably low nine total returns for two cumulative yards.
4. DT Neville Gallimore, Oklahoma
Hometown: St. Catherine’s, Canada
Gallimore is beginning to show why he’s one of the most highly regarded prospects to come out of Canada and just the second Sooner ever from the Great White North. He laid the ground floor by starting six games and making 40 stops, four tackles for loss and a sack as a redshirt freshman. An important year older, Gallimore plans to fill a pivotal void for an Oklahoma D-line returning no full-timers. He anchors well at 6-2 and 310 pounds, yet also plays with the 4.72 speed and lateral quickness to shoot gaps and blow up opposing backfields.
3. OG Hjalte Froholdt, Arkansas
Hometown: Svendborg, Denmark
From Danish club player in the tiny town of Svendborg to foreign exchange student in Ohio, Froholdt has taken a quantum in a very short time span. Football has come naturally to him, despite his limited experience. After playing defensive tackle as a rookie in 2015, Froholdt made a smooth transition to left guard last fall, standing out as a 13-game starter. Cited on the Outland Trophy Watch List, he’s the kind of mauler at the point of attack who meshes well in a Bret Bielema attack.
2. P Michael Dickson, Texas
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
Dickson is fresh off one of the top seasons ever for a Horn punter, and it was only his second one in Austin. In other words, there might still be room for improvement for the Aussie before continuing his career on Sundays. As a sophomore, Dickson was named Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year and Texas’ first-ever Ray Guy Award finalist. He’s an athletic 6-3, 208-pounder, with the leg drive and fundamentals to finish No. 3 nationally a season ago with a healthy average of 47.4 yards per punt.
1. P Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah
Hometown: Gosnells, Australia
Wishnowsky ended up being an uncommonly perfect bridge to decorated former Ute Tom Hackett, keeping the Ray Guy Award in Salt Lake City for a remarkable third season in a row. Wishnowsky stood second nationally with an average of 47.7 yards, but he did so much more than just launch missiles off his right foot. He also showcased remarkable precision when pinning opponents deep within their own territory, leading the FBS in drops inside the 10-yard line and failing to produce a single touchback over the last dozen games of the year.