By BRANDON GRANAADA
CLAREMONT, Calif. — It’s not unusual for a member of the IMG Academy high school football team in Florida to get a scholarship offer from a Division 1 college. Eighteen players from IMG’s 2017 graduating class alone signed with Division 1 programs in early February. However, one player received 11 Division 1 offers despite his being a junior and never playing a snap in a high school football game.
That player is Daniel Faalele, a 6-foot-9-inch, 394-pound offensive lineman from Melbourne, Australia. At 15, Faalele hadn’t even seen American-style football let alone played it. Instead, he played rugby. However, his size and quickness were enough to interest a recruiter from the University of Hawaii who saw him at a Melbourne-area gym.
Kevin Wright, the head football coach at IMG Academy, a full-time football-centric boarding high school in Bradenton, Florida, heard about Faalele from the Hawaii recruiter. Intrigued, he called Faalele’s mother to offer Faalele a spot on the IMG football team.
Faalele jumped at the opportunity to move 10,000 miles from home and hasn’t looked back. “For about a week, I was feeling homesick,” Faalele told ESPN, “but after that I just started to enjoy the team atmosphere.”
During his first season at IMG Academy, Faalele, a junior, didn’t even play in competition. Instead, he spent the entire season on the practice squad, learning the basic rules and fundamentals of football.
The IMG Academy coaching staff has intentionally taken a slow approach to training him. “He didn’t know what a yard was,” his offensive line coach, Derrick Elder, told ESPN. “He didn’t know what a first down was. It was like taking a newborn out of the womb.”
While Faalele still hasn’t made it onto the field, his physical stature has made quite the impression on his own coaches, as well as the coaching staffs of several Division 1 programs. “We have pro athletes on our campus. We have college athletes,” Wright told ESPN, “But those guys aren’t imposing. He was so imposing where it just made all of us stop and look and say, ‘He really is that big.’”
“You can’t teach height or size,” said Chris Dufresne, a former national college football and basketball columnist for the Los Angeles Times. That’s why Faalele has offers from some of the top-ranked schools in the country, including Alabama, Michigan and Miami, without ever playing a down.
Dufresne went as far as to compare Faalele to Christian Okyoe, the former Kansas City Chief and Pro Bowl fullback who didn’t play football until college. “The bottom line is I do believe Faalele can make it,” Dufresne wrote via email. “His chances are much better because of highly specialized training facilities such as IMG, which can speed up the development process.”
Former IMG strength coach David Ballou told ESPN that Faalele is “just a freak of nature, obviously. As big as he is, you wouldn’t expect him to move like he does.”
Faalele attributes his hidden quickness to his background in rugby and basketball, which has given him surprisingly quick feet for someone his size. Even scarier is the fact that Faalele is just beginning to tap into his potential. “He’s a powerful dude, but he’s had limited strength background before coming here,” Ballou said in an interview with ESPN. “From our perspective, his training age is one.”
His teammates feel his presence too. In one practice last season, Faalele was paired with IMG teammate Josh Kaindoh, a 6-foot-6-inch, 260-pound defensive lineman and five-star recruit. Faalele collided with Kaindoh at the line of scrimmage, hitting him so hard that he fell on his back. Kaindoh, who signed with three-time football national champion Florida State University, recognizes Faalele’s improvement as a player. “Bro (Faalele) is blowing up!” he tweeted in December.
Nick Obrand, an avid college football recruiting fan, finds this particular anecdote about Faalele promising. “Kaindoh is one of the top defensive linemen in the country.” Obrand said, “For Faalele to get the better of him during his first year of football, the sky’s the limit.”
Next season, Faalele is expected to make his first appearance on the football field as a senior. He will also begin his first official college visits, and it’s safe to say every Division 1 program will be hoping to get Faalele on campus before he has to sign in February 2019. However, Faalele is in no rush. Instead, he’s focused on his senior season.
“I know I’ll definitely play well, just because I’ve wanted it so bad,” Faalele told ESPN. “I’m definitely going to dominate my position, lock down my side and secure the win.”
(Written by Brandon Granaada; Feb. 9, 2017)