Sunday, June 23, 2024

Why 2024 NFL Draft marks new era for Aussie pathway

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The 2024 NFL Draft is poised to provide one of the most chaotic, trade-littered and franchise-altering opening nights in recent memory. From mercurial and polarising quarterbacks, electric skill position talent, and ‘a little bit of history repeating’ with the next generation of Hall of Fame families entering the stage, this year’s crop is rich in both talent and narrative.

For the Australian contingent, however, the next few days paint a telling picture of how the pathways to the NFL have evolved, and what they may look like in the future.

There’s Thomas Yassmin, a sixth-year senior tight end out of Utah at 6’5″, 250 pounds with Australian Schoolboys rugby union pedigree. His final season for the Utes was cut short by injury after a breakout season in 2022, but he has big playmaking ability on tape against powerhouse Division I teams.

Tory Taylor, Iowa’s 2023 Ray Guy Award-winning punter has as early as fourth round grades according to some draft analysts; he is the latest elite special teams talent to rise from Nathan Chapman’s heralded Prokick Australia.

On the newest road, Jotham Russell is a former Brisbane Broncos academy prospect whose multi-sport background sees him as part of the 2024 International Player Pathway program. A classmate of newly-signed Jacksonville Jaguar and former Gold Coast Sun Patrick Murtagh, the edge rusher is set to be allocated to one of eight teams if undrafted this weekend.

The rugby-to-college convert; the Aussie rules player turned punter; and the IPP talent. Three stages of Australia’s growing presence in the NFL dating back six decades, all present in one draft class.


THOMAS YASSMIN – Tight End, Utah (Sydney, NSW)

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Thomas Yassmin: Top 30 visit to Browns was ‘unbelievable’

NFL Draft hopeful Thomas Yassmin says its “no shock” why Kevin Stefanski is a two-time NFL Coach of the Year after his pre-draft visit with the Cleveland Browns.

Identified out of The Scots College by a University of Hawaii scout back in 2018, Yassmin looked set for a prolific 2023 campaign after close friend and fellow Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid entered last year’s draft, picked 25th overall by the Buffalo Bills.

But coming off a six-touchdown season in 2022, Yassmin’s final year in college ended prematurely with a shoulder injury sustained in late September during a 59-yard, one-touchdown performance against Oregon State.

Healthy enough to perform at the Utah Pro Day, Yassmin was clocked in the high-4.5-to-4.6 range in the 40-yard dash, and his three-cone time of 7.01 seconds would’ve ranked third amongst tight ends at the NFL Combine.

“At Utah we’re lucky we have a lot of scouts there, I think we had about 20-odd teams present”, Yassmin told ESPN.

“I felt like I was able to show my speed. I’m a tall guy, so I always knew my start wasn’t going to be as good, but my top end speed from the 20-40 split was up there with guys who run 4.4 seconds.”

That performance and his tape led to a number of teams having conversations with the bulldozing ball-runner, with the Cleveland Browns using a top 30 visit to bring him in for a closer look, which the 23-year-old says went as well as he could’ve hoped.

“It was awesome. I really loved it,” he said. “The facility — unbelievable. The coaches, the program, I mean, is there is no shock why Kevin Stefanski has [been] NFL Coach of the Year two out of the past few years… he is an unbelievable coach. The whole culture.”

“Meeting with the tight ends coach (Tommy Rees), [he’s an] awesome young guy. He was the Alabama offensive coordinator the previous year, loves tight ends. I feel like I had a really good chat with him.”

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Yassmin relives his barnstorming 60-yard catch-and-run TD at Utah

Former Utah tight end Thomas Yassmin relives his favourite play from his college career, ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft.

“Again, just to be able to sort of put myself in front of these coaches, see them face-to-face. Obviously they can see my scouting profile, watch the tape. But I think it’s always good we can get in front of them, it sort of adds another layer to it. I’d love to play for them if that opportunity arises and they wish to take me.”

As for the other teams interested in him as a prospect, Yassmin said he had just gotten off the phone with two teams that day, and added “the 49ers, Broncos and Eagles had a chat” with him at his Pro Day.

For someone who experienced the impassioned fandom and pageantry of college football, the level to which NFL teams investigate a prospect’s background during the draft process was another element that matched what the Sydneysider had only witnessed on the big screen before heading to U.S. shores.

“What you see in the movies is pretty true. Like, if you took a Snickers bar from 7-Eleven in 2010, they’ll know about it. If there’s something to know, they’ll know about it. I’ve got a girlfriend, she’s studying in London, studying at law school and they somehow knew about that. I don’t think I posted about that anywhere. I’ve got maybe one photo on Instagram of my girlfriend.”

“If you want to know a curveball question that threw me off it was that.”

JOTHAM RUSSELL – Edge/Linebacker (Gold Coast, Queensland)

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Jotham Russell: From NRL and gymnastics to studying Parsons & Miller

2024 NFL IPP prospect Jotham Russell says it’s been Von Miller, Micah Parsons and Fred Warner’s film he’s studied while transitioning to rushing the passer.

From offense to defence, Jotham Russell is on the expedited highway to the NFL courtesy of the IPP program and his 6’4″, 240-pound frame, leading NFL’s evaluators to hone his talents as a potential pass rusher. But rather than his rugby league background, it was another sport in his junior athletics career that has proved particularly handy.

“I’ve thanked gymnastics a lot more than once. I’ve got many skills from that itself,” Russell said to ESPN.

“It’s all I hear; bendy, hips, hip mobility, the ankles, everything like that. Even with the way I run, I’m always trying to get around people, so the bending was nothing too new. The way I played rugby league, it was always trying to get low, leverage myself.”

As for the players he’s been modelling off under the tutelage of the IPP coaches, the Canberra product says they started with “the best of the best”.

“Von Miller, of course… he just does it right. The way he gets off, he just has every trick in his arsenal. Looking towards someone for a build closer to me we started looking at Micah Parsons, who’s a big fella so they were being a bit generous,” he added with a grin.

“And then even going into like a linebacker position, we started looking at Fred Warner… he’s someone who I’d want to study for my game and shape myself in his image.

“Knowing how hard it is to simply know what the offense is going to do, where they’re going to be just by simply looking at small details… something as hard as that is, he makes it look easy.”

Taking on the NFL playbook with the shortest run-up of any of this year’s Australian prospects, it’s the grind and the detail of studying a new sport and applying it at high speed that has fuelled Russell’s commitment.

“I’ve loved the whole journey, the whole way through,” he said. “The challenges that have come and how I’ve overcome them, they’ve just been stepping stones into what’s made me love the sport even more.”

TORY TAYLOR – Punter, Iowa (Melbourne, VIC)

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Iowa’s Tory Taylor breaks single-season punt record

Iowa’s Tory Taylor sets the FBS record for the most punt yards in a single season.

Named college football’s best punter this past season, Taylor leaves Iowa City off the back of a career-best 48.2 yard average in 2023, good enough for fourth in the nation, and a single-season record 4,479 yards of total punting, breaking John Fingel’s 85-year-old mark.

Off the field, the star special-teamer also gained recognition in the Iowa community. Unable to profit from his name, image and likeness (NIL) as an international student, he raised tens of thousands of dollars for the ‘Count the Kicks’ foundation, which champions awareness for stillbirth prevention.

The Hawkeye is the unanimous top-ranked punter in the class among ESPN Draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr., Field Yates, Jordan Reid and Matt Miller, and Prokick Australia director Nathan Chapman broke down what separates the 26-year-old as a special teams prospect at the next level.

“A big lad with a big kick, lots of confidence and he’s composed,” Chapman said. “It’s a pretty great formula for getting into the NFL, and even though there’s pressures behind getting to that level, he’ll settle himself and handle it well.”

“He was always tall and could always kick it a long way. But then that self-belief and confidence grew, which then changed the way he approached every kick… to go, ‘No, I am good and I’m going to show it to you and this is going to be really hard for other teams to handle, because I’m going to kick the s— out of it.'”

Chapman believes the work Taylor has put down on film at Iowa deservedly has him touted as the top prospect at his position as teams start to look at adding special team help in the draft.

“He’s the best guy coming out and he’s got a lot of upside, so let’s hope those draft cards fall his way and he gets out of there on Saturday,” he said.

With the NFL’s Australian operation growing in reach, entering more and more schools with a rapidly spreading flag football program, and size, with Philadelphia left tackle Jordan Mailata back home promoting the game with high-ranking Eagles officials this past week, the overarching message is clear: The talent is here, and the NFL is going to find it.

Australia’s latest prospects aren’t confined to one position group, a single sporting background or the list of names above. Jordy Sandy out of Texas Christian University joins Taylor as part of the graduating Prokick Australia class, he had the keen eyes of Dallas Cowboys scouts locked on his efforts at ‘Dallas Day’ this past month at The Star in Frisco, Texas.

With all 32 franchises now able to carry a roster-exempt international player through preseason and onto their practice squad, combined with the increasing haste with which global talent is being signed by teams, the highway to the NFL isn’t just a teasing headline or contract-ploy. It’s paved and painted, and the traffic’s picking up.

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