Saturday, July 20, 2024

Eagles at it again, sign raw 300-pound Aussie

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The NFL undrafted free agent frenzy is full of familiar names being snapped up in an open market, as teams try to add players left on their draft board who didn’t get the call through seven rounds.

But a name that comes out of nowhere for most is Laekin Vakalahi, a 6’5″, 318-pound 21-year-old from Brisbane, Australia, who has never played a down of American football. He has been signed by the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent to develop on the offensive line with an international player roster exemption.

In fact, rather than playing football or any other sport in recent seasons, Vakalahi, who boasts 35-inch arms, 11-inch hands and an 83-inch wingspan, has spent the past two years completing his mission service in Wellington, New Zealand.

How he came onto the Eagles’ radar this offseason is a story of pure chance, and the extent to which the international search for talent reaches for teams like Philadelphia, with General Manager Howie Roseman’s scouting department having previously registered early scores in the region.

“It’s a bit of a funny story. My mum and my dad were in Hawaii just on a holiday, and a friend of Eagles international scout Chris Naeole walked past my dad and saw he was a big guy and he started talking to him… they had a conversation and my dad said I’ve got some boys, so they started talking about my younger brother Kobe. He’s a big boy but he’s not of age,” Vakalahi told ESPN.

“They got to talking about me and this guy wanted to get me in contact with Chris (Naeole). I was serving a mission at the time for my church.”

Once his mission service had concluded, a workout was set up with Naeole, a former first round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 1997, flying in and heading to a unique spot in the New Zealand capital.

“Ten minutes from the Wellington airport there’s a soccer field. I said ‘hey let’s go here, it’ll do the job.’ He started teaching me all these different stances and got me doing different drills to show my power, technique and flexibility. Man I was so puffed… but it was a good workout.”

While the sport is brand new to the raw prospect born in Auckland, New Zealand, the process of learning the game and tackling the physical nature of line of scrimmage is one he’s relishing.

“I never thought I’d ever play American football, the closest I ever got was playing Madden on my Xbox… and I only played on a free trial so it was always the Green Bay Packers,” laughs Vakalahi.

“Being down in a three- or two-point stance, I definitely wasn’t used to that. I’m still definitely working on it, I still have a long way to go but I’m slowly getting the hang of it.”

“I love the feeling. Before starting football I just loved the idea of getting fired up and getting aggressive in the gym, lifting weights… so I think that same mentality will help me translate over to football, as well as my rugby background.”

The Eagles have obvious history with identifying and developing raw offensive line talent from Australia. Jordan Mailata, one of the NFL International Player Pathway’s greatest success stories, was a target Howie Roseman traded up for to grab in the seventh round back in 2018, and is now cemented as the franchise’s left tackle. Clearly, Philadelphia’s talent evaluators are hoping to strike Australian gold twice.

Mailata was back on home shores on an official Eagles tour down under the past two weeks as they further plant their flag in the region, making the team’s first round pick from the Gold Coast and helping launch the NFL Academy Asia Pacific as one of its ambassadors. The star left tackle has long credited Philadelphia’s offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland for his growth, and it’s that man who Vakalahi will have the opportunity to learn under next.

Over the past month, Valakahi has been training at Conquest Athletic Performance, the academy that originally surfaced Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Daniel Faalele and 2023 IPP Combine invitee Talitiga Amosa, among others in the U.S. high school and college ranks.

“Training at Conquest these past few weeks, just getting more in shape, it’s really helped me out, I feel a lot better and more ready for what’s to come.”

“As soon as I came (here) they flipped my whole world around, got me doing these crazy exercises, I didn’t even know what they were, for the little muscles in my body.”

The 21-year-old played junior rugby league in Brisbane for the Ormeau Shearers and then basketball after moving to Melbourne, an athletic background that’s honed his flexibility and fluid movement at his size. But he believes that part of what prepares him for this opportunity and change of course is the commitment he took from his mission service.

“This might seem like a real unique answer, but I definitely think my mission has helped me a lot to gain that resilience, diligence and that grinding work ethic.”

“It was challenging for me, but I think I’ve taken those same principles and attributes… and do my best to apply them to football. Just getting out there, grinding every day, wake up early and study. That’s what’s going to help me, and make me different.”

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