Commentary

European players hoping colleges expand their recruiting pool

Updated: June 4, 2008, 5:20 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Nowadays, nearly every potential college football recruit in the country is identified before he reaches his junior year of high school.

Players' statistics and measurements are documented on numerous Web sites, and seemingly no stone goes unturned in the never-ending search for top talent.

[+] EnlargeMarkus Kuhn
Gene Galin/NC State AthleticsMarkus Kuhn was just looking for a chance to play in the United States.

Thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, though, there remains untapped talent in Europe. But finding and identifying those players who are good enough to play in the U.S. remains extremely difficult.

An ESPN.com review of Division I-A rosters found fewer than 60 players who attended foreign high schools. Most of the international players came from Canada and American Samoa islands, areas that have long been recruiting hotbeds for U.S. colleges. Conversely, fewer than a dozen players came from faraway places like Germany, Sweden and Australia.

In fact, European players are often the ones recruiting American coaches, instead of vice versa.

"I believe there are tons and tons of players across the Atlantic that college coaches just don't see," said Stanford guard Gustav Rydstedt, who grew up in Stockholm, Sweden. "There were so many guys who went straight into NFL Europe that could have had great college careers. I think it's really an untapped resource. There are great, great players in places like Germany, France and Sweden."

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NC State found one in sophomore defensive end Markus Kuhn. He started playing football in his native Germany at the age of 15. Kuhn's youth team had only 15 players and practiced on a field covered with holes and, worse, rocks. The Weinheim Longhorns rarely had enough players to field both an offense and defense.

"Practice was more like playing around," Kuhn said. "It was horrible."

Because of his large stature, Kuhn was named to the German Football League's all-star team four straight seasons as a linebacker. He was even invited to try out for an NFL Europe team at the age of 18. When NFL Europe officials invited him to a second tryout in Orlando, Kuhn declined because he worried it might jeopardize his college eligibility in the U.S.

At the very least, Kuhn realized he was talented enough to play at an American college. He just had to find a school that was willing to give him a chance to play.

In the fall of 2006, Kuhn and his father organized his academic transcripts and scheduled times for him to take the SAT and an English proficiency exam, a requirement for foreign students attending U.S. colleges. They made a DVD of Kuhn's football highlights and flew to Washington, D.C., where they began a week-long tour of colleges.

Their first stop was Division I-AA Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., which offered Kuhn a scholarship on the spot. Then they went to Division I-AA Richmond, which also showed sincere interest in him.

"We were like, 'OK, let's try some bigger schools,'" Kuhn said.

I'd just knock on the door of the coach's office, walk in and say, 'I'm from Germany and I can play football, too.'

--NC State's Markus Kuhn

So they drove further south and visited Duke, East Carolina, North Carolina, NC State and Virginia.

"Everybody was kind of shocked," Kuhn said. "I'd just knock on the door of the coach's office, walk in and say, 'I'm from Germany and I can play football, too.' The coaches gave me weird looks, but they were all really nice. They figured if I'd spent so much time and money coming from Germany they could at least look at my DVD."

Kuhn's father, Wolfgang Kuhn, thought NC State would be the perfect place for his son. Kuhn's father is a retired mortgage broker and his mother is a housewife. The family lives in Viernheim, Germany, which is about an hour's drive south of Frankfurt.

"As soon as we got to NC State, my father thought it was the nicest place we'd been so far," Kuhn said. "He thought Wolfgang's son should play for the Wolfpack."

Then-Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato invited Kuhn to compete in a high school combine the following day. But since Kuhn was no longer a high school student, he couldn't participate. Amato offered Kuhn a scholarship anyway.

Amato was fired after the 2006 season, and the Wolfpack hired Boston College's Tom O'Brien to replace him.

"I didn't hear from NC State for a while," Kuhn said. "I thought they'd forgotten about the German guy."

So Kuhn sent an e-mail to nearly every Division I-A head coach in the country. Kuhn also sent a DVD of his highlights to two Internet-based recruiting services, so coaches could see him in action.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lind
Duke Sports InformationMarcus Lind wanted to see how he stacked up against better competition, so he came to the States.

"I'm sorry, but it was a major pain in the ass," Kuhn said. "A lot of coaches didn't even call me back. Some of the ones who did were like, 'Markus, you look good, but we don't know anything about you.' I understood where they were coming from. I was a German kid who never played high school football and the only thing they had was a short highlight tape of me. They didn't know even how good my opponents were."

Kuhn said Virginia called him back and offered him a scholarship if he was willing to spend one season at a prep school. California and Hawaii also showed a lot of interest in him.

Finally, O'Brien called Kuhn shortly before national signing day in February 2007. Kuhn and his father flew back to the U.S. for an official visit. Kuhn enrolled at NC State a few months later.

"He was on the [prior coaching staff's recruiting] list and they were trying to bring him in at mid-semester," O'Brien said. "We slowed down the process because we wanted to make sure of what we were doing."

O'Brien became convinced Kuhn could play in the ACC after watching the DVD of his highlights.

"You knew the competition wasn't very good; it was pretty apparent it wasn't," O'Brien said. "But with his physical stature and the fact he ran and chased the ball and did a lot of things you can't coach, you realized he had potential. He had a willingness to play and play hard. He had a lot of those intangibles. Of course, a lot of us also think we're great teachers."

And Kuhn turned out to be a fast learner. When the Wolfpack began preseason camp before the 2007 season, Kuhn was a third-team defensive tackle. Injuries forced him onto the field by the second game and he stayed in the rotation the rest of the season. Kuhn finished the season with 32 tackles, 3½ tackles for loss, one sack and two forced fumbles while playing defensive tackle and end.

"He had no technique," O'Brien said. "He was a stand-up player in Germany and we asked him to put his hand on the ground. Unfortunately for him, he had to play last year. The best thing for him would have been to take a redshirt year and learn the game of football and get beat up a little bit and get his nose bloodied a little bit. He played on just sheer determination last year."

Sheer determination is often what drives many foreign players, most of whom have little or no exposure to college coaches. Some foreign players arrive in the U.S. as exchange students and end up staying to play college football.

Central Michigan linebacker Matt Berning, from Duisburg, Germany, attended one year of high school in Mexico, Mo. Miami offensive tackle Ian Symonette, from the Bahamas, went to high school in Houston. Duke offensive tackle Marcus Lind, a native of Sweden, attended St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Rydstedt spent one season playing high school football in Southaven, Miss., before enrolling at Stanford.

"It was a little different," Rydstedt said. "The humidity hit me as soon as I got off the plane. It was great football. They're serious about football in the South. It is a good time."

I think colleges are going to get overseas and start recruiting European players. Schools like Duke and Stanford have such high academic standards they have a very limited pool of players they can recruit. Why not go overseas and expand that pool?

--Stanford guard Gustav Rydstedt

Most foreign players come to the U.S. looking for better competition and a free education.

"I wanted to study abroad for one year and play football at the same time," Lind said. "I wanted to play against better competition to see how I matched up."

Football coaches at St. Thomas Aquinas High told then-Duke coach Ted Roof about Lind before the lineman even arrived in the U.S. Once Roof saw Lind's 300-pound frame, he offered him a scholarship. Lind said Auburn, Miami, NC State and South Carolina also recruited him.

After Lind committed to play for the Blue Devils, he told Roof about Pontus Bondeson, his teammate on the Swedish national team.

"Marcus said, 'Coach, I've got this friend I want you to look at,'" said Roof, now defensive coordinator at Minnesota. "He said, 'If you think I'm big, you need to take a look at this guy.'"

Lind showed Roof a picture of Bondeson standing with his girlfriend. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive tackle towered over her.

"The guy was about two feet taller than his date," Roof said. "But she could have been 4-feet-4. We wouldn't have known."

Duke flew Bondeson and his mother to Durham, N.C., for an official visit. When Roof offered Bondeson a scholarship, his mother wept in Roof's office.

"It was out of joy and happiness," Bondeson said. "She knew how much I wanted to play college football. It was a dream come true."

It's a dream many European players have.

"I think colleges are going to get overseas and start recruiting European players," Rydstedt said. "Schools like Duke and Stanford have such high academic standards they have a very limited pool of players they can recruit. Why not go overseas and expand that pool?"

Even if the pool to get there is about 3,500 miles wide.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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