College football’s 2021 season set to kick off: International stars to keep an eye on this fall

From NFL games in London, England to viral big hits and one-handed catches breaking the internet, American football has slowly and steadily made a dent internationally. The complex and niche sport has been able to intrigue some fantastic athletes to strap on the pads regardless of birthplace.

The college football season kicks off this weekend and it too has grabbed international attention as the global growth of the game has opened doors for athletes from all over the world to make the leap to US schools where they can compete against the best. This year, we’ll see an unprecedented number of these dream-chasing international players hit the field at the NCAA’s highest level.

Let’s take a look at the NCAA Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) from an international scope. *Players’ nationality was determined by the info in their player bios at their respective universities.

Starting closest to home, it’s no surprise that players from America’s northern neighbor, Canada, make up the largest margin of the foreign-born players at college football’s highest level. This fall, 66 Canadians will hit the field at top programs such as Michigan, Penn State, Alabama, and Stanford. The talent north of the US border is becoming difficult to ignore as six players have been drafted into the NFL in the last two years. These draft picks included college football superstars like Chubba Hubbard and Chase Claypool. Defensively, two Canadian standouts to watch this fall are edge defender Tavius Robinson of Mississippi State and linebacker Jesse Luketa of Penn State, both were named to the Senior Bowl watchlist.

At the quarterback position, Kurtis Rourke will likely start at Ohio University. After leading the Bobcats from under center in their shortened 2020 season, Kurtis hopes to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Nathan who started three seasons for the Bobcats before joining the B.C. Lions of the CFL. However, the top Canadian to watch this fall is John Metchie III. The Ontario native put up 916 yards and six touchdowns as the Alabama Crimson Tide cruised to the title in 2020. Early projections have Metchie III going as high as the first round in next year’s NFL draft.

Canadian John Metchie III Photo: Alabama Athletics

Despite a proud American football culture, only three Mexican players made this list. This could be because Mexico has an established college football league of its own. However, the talent in Mexico is difficult to deny as two Mexican players have been selected as part of the NFL’s International Pathway program the past two seasons.

Australia leads the way outside of North America by a wide margin with 58 players suiting up this fall. Australia’s punting phenomenon has been well documented as six of the last ten Ray Guy Award winners (best punter award) went to Aussies. Currently, 53 Australian punters are listed across 50 programs at college football’s highest level. Of those 53, 16 made this year’s Ray Guy Award watchlist.

However, punters are easy to overlook playing only a few snaps a game. On the other hand, Australian offensive tackle Daniel Faalele of the University of Minnesota is literally impossible to look over. Faalele might be the biggest player in college football, listed at 6’9 380 lbs. The massive  Melbourne native started in both 2018 and 2019 before missing last season. The big man is seen by scouts as a potential pro-bowl caliber prospect in next year’s draft.

Australian OL Daniel Faalele Photo: Minnesota Athletics

Heading across the globe to Europe, 25 German players are spread out across college football’s Bowl Subdivision, many entering their first or second year in their programs. A few Germans have found themselves at top schools such as Auburn, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Michigan.

Alex Honig blazes a trail at Texas Christian University (TCU) as the only European quarterback in FBS. The 6’6 freshman enters a crowded quarterback room, looking to find his role during his first year on campus. At the University of Cincinnati 6’9 320 lb offensive lineman Lorenz Mets projects to be a starter for the Bearcats this fall. Further up north, Bavarian Julius Welchof earned significant playing time at the University of Michigan last season. Expect the 6’6 290 lb senior to have a bigger role in the Wolverines defensive line rotation this fall.

German QB Alexander Honig at Texas Christian University spring practice

Austria’s Bernhard Raimann made the switch from tight end to tackle last fall and has since excelled in trenches. The 6’7 305 lb Vienna Vikings product has bulked up and yet somehow maintained the athleticism of a receiver. The combination of size and quick feet earned him all-conference honors last season, his first as an offensive lineman. Pro scouts will have Raimann’s name highlighted come this fall as he’s been named to multiple preseason watch lists.

Austrian OL Bernhard Raimann Photo: Central Michigan Athletics

Frenchmen Junior Aho returns as a key piece of SMU’s defensive line. The former Juco prospect is poised for a big 2021 after playing well in a shortened 2020 season. Staying in the south, French offensive tackle Nour-Eddine Seidnaly will anchor the right tackle spot once again for the Arkansas State Red Wolves.

Scandinavian talent is also evident as six Swedes, one Finn, and two Danish players will suit up this fall at the FBS level in 2021. Swedish prospects have had the most success, as tackle Isaac Moore (Temple) edge defender Simon Sandberg (Oregon State) and linebacker Jordan Genmark-Heath (UCLA) are all starters on their respective teams.

Swedish linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath Photo: Jan Kim Lim

Taking a look at the remainder of European players, Georgia Tech’s Belgian defensive lineman Sylvain Yondjouen and Irish punter David Shanahan will be teammates this fall. While Almere, Netherlands native Thomas Odukoya earned all-conference honors for the Eastern Michigan Eagles as a tight end last season. The 6’6 Dutchmen returns to campus poised for a breakout senior campaign.

Staying in Europe, Italian defensive end Thomas Habakkuk Badonado aims to be a starter at the University of Pittsburgh after two years of increased rotational snaps. Meanwhile, English offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni is determined to earn a starting spot in his senior campaign for the Utah Utes. Overall, 60 Europeans will suit up this fall, many still finding their role in the early stages of their college careers.

Be on the lookout for more European’s in the future as London’s NFL Academy and other European programs have a long list of highly-rated high school prospects headed to top universities in the coming years.

Chinese running back Jackson He Photo: Arizona State

On the Asian side, viral sensation Jackson He returns to Arizona States Universities backfield after becoming the first Chineseborn player to score a touchdown in division one history last season. The senior hopes to return to the endzone again this fall in his final season. Just north of He, Japanese defensive end Shuhei Mitsumoto enters his first year with the Utah Utes.

Africanborn players also make up a large part of the talent pool as seven Nigerian players, a South African, and a Ghanaian, add up to ten Africanborn players suiting up this fall. This number represents only the players born on the African continent, many of the other players on this list have family ties to various African countries.

Troy University’s Richard Jibunor headlines the group as an all-conference linebacker. Jibuynor is seen by pro scouts as a future draft pick after last year’s breakout season. In trenches, Clemson’s Ruke Orhorhoro is another young talent to watch. The junior defensive tackle has earned a ton of snaps early in his career at a prestigious program.

Nigerian defensive lineman Ruke Orhorhoro Photo: Clemson University

This list only examines international players at the FBS level. At various levels of college football, the amount of international players making the jump to the US is increasing helping the game grow globally.

Currently, college football seems to be one of the best catalysts for the global growth of American football. Recruiting young players from all over the world, giving them free education, excellent coaching, and a chance to chase their pro dreams is something most teenage players would crave for. Academic education and athletic coaching should also set these young men up for a host post-educational of options on and off the field. Many of these players will likely return to their home countries and pass on their skills to the next generation of players.

A select few may eventually make the leap to pro’s bringing even more global attention to the gridiron. In the copycat world of American football, the success of these foreign-born players will help pave the way for more international prospects to make the leap to college football.

Alex is a former professional American football player who is now studying in London. His goal writing for AFI is to stay involved with the game that has given him so much. Alex enjoys covering leagues and players and sharing different football