THOMAS Yassmin has still never played a game of American football in his life.
He put on a helmet for the first time over the weekend. It felt “weird”; the 18-year-old had never even worn a cricket helmet, let alone the football equivalent he put over his head while in Salt Lake City.
Yassmin’s foremost athletic experience came in the form of rugby, with the product of The Scots College earning a spot in the Australian Schoolboys team, dominating the wing with his impressive combination of size and speed. He was also a member of his school’s firsts basketball team, with his main exposure to football coming from what he saw on television, and video games.
Still, despite having as little actual interaction with football as one could get, Yassmin’s future looks as bright as ever.
He’s now a tight end, just signed to the University of Utah.
THE LEARNING PROCESS
“I’ve never played football in my life,” Yassmin told foxsports.com.au. “I’ve watched it. I’ve played Madden, but I’ve never played it.”
That didn’t stop the Utah coaching staff from getting in touch with him. The intrigue: Yassmin’s 6’5” frame, as he closes in on 250 lbs.
It didn’t take long for head coach, Kyle Whittingham, to get involved in his recruitment, and, after an official visit to the Salt Lake City campus, he committed to Utah’s esteemed program.
“Firstly, the academic program,” Yassmin said, when asked why he decided to accept the scholarship and sign with the school.
“Their business and math department are ninth in the nation, so academics were the biggest part for me.
“Then, there’s the sporting side; they’re very well-respected, and have the second highest draft rate in the NFL. The last two years, all of their seniors have been drafted, and they have the most successful bowl record.
“The football program was top notch, and also the people treated you like family. They were really warm; I felt like I’d known them for a long time when I was there.”
Yassmin’s lack of experience playing football is something he’s chosen to attack head on, arriving on campus muchearlier than usual, in order to get accustomed to the new game. With his sort of body, the versatile athlete boasts a frame perfectly suited for the positional flexibility college coaches desire in less-seasoned prospects.
“He’s a big, fast, raw, twitchy athlete who could play multiple positions once he learns the game, projecting as a defensive end or outside linebacker on defence, or a tight end on offence,” one scout told foxsports.com.au.
Those explosive traits at his size will make Yassmin mouldable as he learns the game and finds a positional home, and his academic background only enhances the belief he can make the transition from rugby to football, developing on the go.
“He’s very smart and a fundamental overachiever in the class room,” the scout said.
While Yassmin excels in the classroom, and has an incredibly high ceiling with regard to his future in football, a lot of his success will come down to how well, and how quickly he’s able to grasp the game.
The part of the learning process that most scares the Sydneysider?
“The plays,” Yassmin said, without hesitation. “100 percent.”
“Memorising the plays. They bloody name plays after combinations of fruits and colours. Honestly, ‘red book this’.
“It’s learning that, then also if they call an audible, knowing what the audible is. Hearing it, seeing it. I think that’s gonna be the hardest bit.”
‘YOU’VE GOT NOTHING TO LOSE’
Before beginning his final year of high school, Yassmin had no idea that a future in football was even plausible.
It wasn’t until his basketball coach, David Todd, threw the question into the atmosphere: “why not football?”
The sentiment coming from his coach was simple, according to Yassmin: “I thought, I had nothing to lose. I watch it. He knows I love it. So I thought, yeah, alright.”
They attempted to contact schools, in order to gauge the potential interest in a raw product like Yassmin, but there weren’t any takers. However, when the University of Hawaii’s football team toured Australia — that team, featuring fellow Scots boy, Max Hendrie — the interest in Yassmin began to grow, thanks to the efforts of then-offensive line coach, Chris Naeole.
Through Naeole, Hawaii was the first school to contact Yassmin, running him through a quick trial, before rewarding him with his first offer. Interest then began to come from multiple schools, with Oregon and Washington taking a close look at the then-17-year-old, before Utah got involved in December of 2017.
The late hype was solidified when, after Yassmin had completed a visit to Utah, while on a flight back to Sydney, his father received a call from Chip Kelly, the new UCLA head coach, who wanted to extend an offer. Unfortunately for the former Eagles head coach, Yassmin — who’s a self-described Eagles fan, and has been ‘for about five years’ — had decided on becoming a Ute.
Kelly called Yassmin once more, on Wednesday (AEDT) - the early hours of signing day - and though the now-highly touted recruit gave it thought, “there’s just something about Utah,” he said.
Yassmin sees himself as a tight end, and, while there’s a chance he may redshirt his first season at the program, there’s still a real possibility that he learns the craft well enough that he might not have to.
“Tight end was my ideal position,” Yassmin said. “The coaches said tight end or defensive end, but they were leaning more toward tight end because of my speed and my catching. Plus, they’ve lost their two senior tight ends, so that spot has opened.”
The speed Yassmin talks about is his the 4.5 40-yard dash, which he says he did after two rugby training sessions.
“Personally, I think it’s better,” Yassmin said. “I think I could run a faster time.”
As he prepares to build his game from the foundation up, Yassmin notably admires Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, as well as the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, two of the premier tight ends in the NFL today. At 6’5”, he stands eye-to-eye with the All-Pros, and while a college strength program could see his weight tick past the 250 lbs mark, his forty-yard speed already puts him in impressive territory, and highlights the 18-year-old as a move tight end with mismatch speed for the position.
“They’d seen my highlight video,” Yassmin said of his mesmerising rugby highlight reel. “Catching high balls, breaking off tackles; they said that’s what really stood out, so they thought I’d be great use at tight end.”
FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND A FUTURE... IN THE NFL?
When the idea of playing college football first arose, it was simply to create an opportunity for Yassmin to earn a quality education.
Entering Year 12, Yassmin had, in essence, resigned to the fact that he’ll attend university in Australia, while likely playing rugby for that school. It would’ve been the simple option, and just fine. Chasing a football scholarship clearly paid off, so the Yassmin family no longer has to worry about the tertiary education of their youngest boy.
Now, Yassmin is thinking beyond just the school’s business and math department.
“First, this was more just a gateway for a good education,” Yassmin said. “But, the more I speak to coaches, and other people who have done stuff similar to me — my positioning and all that — I’m going to try to make the NFL.
“If I’m going to play college football, I might as well go all out and give the NFL a crack.”
Yassmin has been a fan of the NFL, and the Eagles, for some time. He watched the first half of his team’s performance in Super Bowl LII, before hopping on a plane, bound for Sydney. Upon landing, he opened his phone to see his team had stunned Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, much to the delight of he and his older brother, Patrick, but to the dismay of the eldest Yassmin brother, Christian, a Pats fan.
This entire experience has been a learning process for Yassmin and his family. He’ll leave for Utah on February 28, with the intention of picking up the game quick enough to be ready in time for his freshman year.
“Recently, I’ve been watching it a lot more closely,” he said. “Things like highlight videos, training drills, things they do. Going soon, I’m gonna learn all of that through preseason.”
Yassmin said his friends have been “really supportive”, and that his parents simply wanted their son to relish the opportunity. That, of course, was before finding out what being a college football player actually involves.
“They didn’t really know anything about football, but in terms of the opportunities, and going overseas, they had to convince me to do it,” Yassmin said.
“Then, they started learning more about the game, and, when we were on our visit, coach was going through the things I’m gonna learn: blocking, tackling, blindsiding some people when you have to. When my mum saw that, she freaked out. She had no idea this is what we do.”
Being immersed in the world of college football is new to the Yassmin’s, and, while the learning curve is steep, they’re already making headway.
Yassmin has already met Utah punter, and fellow Australian, Mitch Wishnowsky, and he couldn’t speak more highly of his official visit to the campus.
Utah has produced a plethora of NFL talent, from Eric Weddle, Alex Smith, Star Lotuleilei, and Marcus Williams, with Yassmin hoping to be among the next.
Once a star on Scots’s firsts rugby team, playing in front of an average of 3,000 people as he was overlooked by the hallowed Graeme Dedrick Scoreboard, Yassmin is now bound for bigger things.
“I’m looking forward to game day,” Yassmin said.
“You’re playing in front of 55,000 people. They’ve had, I think, 52 straight sellouts. Packed out stadiums, travelling on the road. Sport on such a scale; that’ll be a first.”
Of course, for Yassmin, playing in a football game will also be a first.