Liberty’s NT Ralfs Rusins set sights on NFL after succeeding as the NCAA’s lone Latvian

The year 2020 has been a year of surprises in college football but when tiny Liberty University toppled undefeated No. 12 Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl on Boxing Day, they may have become the most shocking team of all. In just their second season of bowl eligibility and third total at the FBS level, the small Christian school completed a 10-1 campaign with their only blemish coming in the form of a one point loss to No. 23 NC State. It can only be described as a historic season, one that will likely propel the Liberty Flames into the postseason Top 25 rankings for the first time in school history.

While the Flames upset was shocking, one of their players has a story even more surprising. Anchoring the middle of the Liberty defensive line for likely the final time in his career was a 6’6, 325-pound statistical anomaly: Ralfs Rusins (Rūsiņa), college football’s only Latvian.

While finding international players succeeding at the highest level of college football is no longer the rarity it once was, Rusins still stands alone. Despite the success of Estonia’s Margus Hunt at the NFL level, players from the Baltic states haven’t achieved the same level of international attention as those from traditional European football powers like Germany, Austria or France. Rusins is their lone representative at the FBS level and he’s done his home country proud. If there was Heisman type award for the NCAA’s best European, Rusins would be at least a finalist and perhaps the favorite to take home the trophy.

Ralf Rusins (99) honing in on ball carrier Photo: Liberty University

That’s an outcome that would have seemed absurd just a few years ago. When he arrived in Lynchburg, Virginia at the start of the 2015 season, Rusins was a self described blank slate. A promising basketball player and three-time national under-20 Judo champion growing up in Carnikava, he picked up football late in life on a whim, encouraged by his father to try something different. It didn’t take long after joining the Riga Lions for head coach Matt Kessinger, a former Division 2 coach, to identify Rusins as someone with the potential to play stateside. Encouraged by Kessinger, Rusins and his dad mapped out a number of one day recruiting camps he could attend in the US mid-Atlantic region and Rusins flew there by himself, renting a car to make the rounds. One of the stops was Liberty University. The rest, as they say, is history.

After redshirting in 2015, Rusins played sparingly over the next three years, gaining an additional medical redshirt after a season ending injury in 2017. It wasn’t until 2019, the Flames‘ first season as a fully qualified FBS program, that the Latvian really broke out. Under new head coach Hugh Freeze and defensive coordinator Scott Symons, Rusins became the full time starting nose guard and recorded a career high of 60 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. 2020 has been more of the same. While Rusins box score numbers of 34 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack may look like a step back, those who have watched him see a formidable run stopper with a better understanding of the game and more polish than years previous. Bull strong at the point of attack, Rusins is also freakishly athletic for his size and able to push the pocket when the moment calls for it.

While every player in college football has been granted an additional year of eligibility to return to school next year, don’t expect to see Rusins back in Lynchburg next season. That’s because he has even bigger dreams. After succeeding as college football’s lone Latvian, Rusins is looking to become the first player from his country ever selected in the NFL Draft. Barely on the radar two years ago, his stock has risen dramatically amongst scouts over the last two seasons and Rusins is now firmly on the draftable fringe. A strong showing during the pre-draft circuit could see him vying for a place as a late round selection or a undrafted free agent.

Ralf Rusins (99) and teammate Ike Okoye (96) preparing for next play Photo: Liberty University

While nothing is guaranteed, Rusins impressive size, strength and mobility has attracted eyeballs from across the NFL. His judo background intrigues scouts as well, contributing to his balance while engaging blocker and his prowess hand fighting in the trenches. With much less football mileage than other players his age and a steady track record of improvement, some feel that Rusins potential has not yet been fully realized and others have floated the idea of flipping him to the offensive side of the ball to take advantage of his unique length and innate use of leverage from his judo days. Either way, the Latvian will be viewed as an intriguing project on many draft boards.

That’s nothing new to Rusins. His years at Liberty have already shaped him from raw lump of Baltic clay into an imposing defensive presence. Having already made history in college, Rusins is ready for the next leap of faith at the professional level.

The lone Latvian has grown used to being one of a kind.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.