BRADENTON, Fla. – Back home in his native Australia, nobody really wanted to tackle rugby standout Daniel Faalele – not at his size.
“They would try,” said Faalele, a soft-spoken 17-year-old who is massive at 6-foot-9 and 390 pounds. “But I would usually break the tackle or just drag them with me.”
Aussie rugby players can now relax. They are no longer getting dragged all over the field, at least not by Faalele.
That’s because two years ago, a University of Hawaii assistant football coach was in Melbourne, checking on a couple of recruits when a stranger – Faalele – blocked the sun.
Faalele, who played basketball besides rugby, was lifting weights and doing conditioning when he was spotted.
The coach offered Faalele a scholarship that very day.
“He liked the way I moved,” said Faalele, who does not have a typical Australian accent and is not bilingual despite his Tongan/Samoan ancestry.
Faalele quickly realized that there were more opportunities to be had in football than either of his prior sports.
That realization brought him last August to IMG Academy in Bradenton, where his first down of non-practice football came in the spring game.
He spent last season learning the game, preparing for this fall’s Faalele Rollout, an event that is being eagerly anticipated by countless college scouts.
Despite his complete lack of experience, Faalele already has scores of scholarship offers from schools such as Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Miami, Oregon State, Auburn and more.
He is scheduled to compete at The Opening Finals in Oregon later this week.
“From a physical standpoint, he is freakish,” IMG coach Kevin Wright said. “He is nearly 400 pounds, and yet he has a low body-fat percentage. His explosiveness tested off the charts, and his footwork is impressive, probably because of his basketball and rugby training.”
Faalele, who wears a size 18 shoe, comes from a Samoan father who is 6-4, 290 pounds and a Tongan mother who is 5-foot-8.
The kid wears a 3X jersey but …
“It’s kind of tight,” he said.
Mentally, Wright said, Faalele has made a quick transition to learning what to do on a football field.
“We do football 12 months a year here, so that helps,” Wright said. “He has an incredibly high ceiling. We’ve seen him get better by leaps and bounds this spring.”
Part of what has helped Faalele improve is working against all the talent at IMG, including the top-rated defensive end in the nation, Xavier Thomas, who has been impressed.
“It’s pretty special for somebody to be that strong and that athletic,” Thomas said of Faalele. “I’ve never gone up against anybody that big – he’s huge. I do speed rushes and different moves, and he is getting the hang of it.”
Faalele will be IMG’s starting left tackle this fall, which is the No. 1 pressure spot for an offensive lineman and a rare assignment for a complete novice.
“There’s no place to hide at that spot,” Wright said. “He is learning to refine and use his skill set. But if he doesn’t take the right first step, he has issues. But so does every left tackle.
”Daniel is learning to adjust on the fly and not to get too heavy on his outside foot. He is learning to stay on balance.”
Faalele, who is nearly 10,000 miles from his family, uses Facetime often but still misses his mother’s cooking. He wants to lose 10 pounds, down to a mere 380, and the nutritionist assigned to him at IMG wants Faalele to eat 6,500 calories per day.
The food bill must be enormous for IMG, but, rest assured, virtually every collegiate football power in the country is prepared to pay it in order to get Faalele on campus.
Faalele, who wants to major in Business, said location is no issue for him in terms of a college choice. After all, he is already halfway around the world.
But he knows exactly what he wants in a college program.
“I’m just trying to find somewhere I feel comfortable,” he said. “I want to find coaches who can help me grow as a player and eventually get me to the next level.”
Faalele said he loves to learn and enjoys the atmosphere at IMG, where everyone “has the same mission” of getting better.
Wright said Faalele is still figuring out what he is capable of on the football field.
“Once he gets his hands of steel on you,” Wright said, “you are done, and I don’t care who you are.”