Vandy Goes Globalby Chad Bishop
Three key pieces to Vanderbilt's freshmen class hail from the unlikely recruiting grounds of Europe
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — All three tell a similar story. It all just sort of stems from a simple suggestion.
There was a friend, a classmate, a peer who suggested, “Have you ever tried American football?”
Then, not so many years later, all three wound up in Nashville on the 2022 Vanderbilt roster as part of a highly-touted recruited class and a significant keynote to the future of the Commodores.
“We have an international brand and we have a program here and a University here that is attractive for a lot of reasons,” Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea said. “What has happened is European football has experienced an uptick. These players are getting over to the States for camps, they’re being evaluated and the success of those that have come before have opened up opportunities for others.
“We’ll certainly look at that as a part of our recruiting base and see if there are some fits out there that can play both SEC football and manage Vanderbilt University. I think it’s a great opportunity for us.”
Vanderbilt freshmen Darren Agu, Yilanan Ouattara and Linus Zunk all hail from Europe and are all thriving in their first season at Vandy. How each arrived in the United States is a story unto itself and a window into how the Vanderbilt program may be shaped in the years to come.
Linus Leaves Germany
Zunk, as a youth, had actually been contemplating a move to the United States for quite some time. But he had his eyes on playing basketball.
Eventually, however, he said the logistics of going back and forth to compete with his club basketball team became too cumbersome. At the urging of some classmates, he looked into the sport of football.
“I just fell in love with it,” he said.
Born and raised in Germany by German parents, Lunk joined a growing trend of Europeans who are highly-athletic yet highly raw when it comes to the sport. Places like Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School provide a pipeline for such prospects to get acclimated to American life—academically, culturally and athletically.
“Being from (Berlin), it’s interesting to live in dorms and everything,” Zunk said of the private, desolate school lifestyle. “It’s very controlled. You’re very guarded and you have nothing there. I was just so used to the city and it was a big change.”
A 6-foot-6, 235-pound defensive lineman who said he began playing the sport about 3 1/2 years ago, Zunk performed well enough at his newfound high school to garner scholarship offers from Troy, Dartmouth and Yale. He made 77 tackles—21 for a loss—and blocked two kicks as a senior after he had committed to be a Commodore in March of 2021.
“I love it,” Zunk about being at Vanderbilt. “Obviously it’s a lot harder than high school, but I feel like I’m making good progress. I’m obviously still not there yet, but just trying to get better every day and trying to work. I love the city, love everyone here and the team is great.
“It’s been pretty tough. I do have to say, though, it pushes you and it makes you better which is great. They have all the resources here, whether it’s nutrition or the trainers—everybody is just trying to get you to your highest level.”
Agu Does America
Much like Zunk, Agu also found himself playing for Rabun-Gap Nacoochee in hopes of landing a college scholarship. He was the most sough-after prospect of Vandy’s three European freshmen with scholarship offers from Alabama, Notre Dame, Penn State, Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida State, Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina and many more.
At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, the defensive end has made 10 tackles this season and played in all five games. His four stops at No. 2 Alabama on Sept. 24 was a season-high.
“The tempo, all of the plays, reading the offense—I didn’t have that in high school,” Agu said. “When I started everything was moving kind of fast. Coaches have helped me slow it down a lot. Each week is slowing down.”
Agu was born in County Kerry, Ireland, and moved to London a couple years later. The son of a Nigerian father and a Polish mother, Agu mostly played soccer as a youth in the Hackney neighborhood of East London until a friend suggested the game of American football.
Agu went to a football practice as a 16-year-old and liked it. He kept going back and liked it even more each time—even if he admittedly wasn’t quite sure what was going on.
“I started playing receiver. All I knew was to run a fade route,” he laughed. “I was clumsy, skinny, new to the sport.”
At the NFL Academy in London, which, “offers student-athletes aged 16-19 the opportunity to combine their education with … training in the sport,” Agu began to take his game to the next level. But the COVID-19 pandemic derailed his ability to take recruiting visits to the U.S.
His peers urged him to look into playing at an American high school. And that’s how he found the remote campus of Rabun-Gap in the northeast corner of Georgia near the North Carolina border.
“The accents were different,” Agu said. “Some of my teammates, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I was lost.”
Agu recorded 72 tackles (24 for a loss) and 14 sacks as a senior in 2021.
In 2020, Ouattara (prounonced wah-TAH-ha) was in the midst of graduating high school when the COVID-19 pandemic put his academic and athletic future on hold.
Now a 6-foot-7, 274-pound defensive end, Ouattara had planned on arriving in the United States that summer in hopes of attending prospect camps, earning scholarship offers and signing with a university. Instead he trained and worked out at home, essentially taking a year off from both school and sports.
When the calendar turned to 2021, Ouattara’s time to visit America had come. But during a two-week layover in Croatia as part of a quarantine process, while continuing to workout, he suffered a hamstring injury.
That meant visits to Ohio State and West Virginia limited the intriguing prospect in what he could prove to coaches and scouts. He returned to his hometown of Cologne, Germany, and continued to play with his club team in hopes of putting more highlights on tape and garnering interest from more programs.
Ouattara was given a scholarship offer by Vanderbilt in November of 2021. One month later, finally on an official visit to Lea’s program and four days before National Signing Day, Ouattara decided to be a Commodore.
“I fell in love with the place. My mom really liked it as well which was a big thing,” he said. “Vanderbilt’s path kind of lined up with mine since I’m relatively new to football and starting to grow and develop—as is this program.”
Ouattara’s father is from the Ivory Coast and his mother is German. After spending most of his childhood in France, Ouattara, his two brothers and his mother returned to Germany before Ouattara was in high school.
Ouattara played tennis, he swam, he rowed and even did some gymnastics. A friend of his who had already started playing football said to him one day, “you’re too big not to be playing football.”
Mississippi, the opponent for Vanderbilt at 3 p.m. Saturday at FirstBank Stadium, was actually the first program to offer Ouattara a scholarship. But because of the pandemic, Ouattara was never able to visit the school in person nor develop a strong relationship with the coaching staff.
Ouattara, who said he started playing the sport in 2019, made his Vandy debut Sept. 10 against Wake Forest and is still looking to record his first tackle.
“It’s different. It’s more physical,” he said of the college game. “Back home athleticism takes you a long way. Over here everyone is athletic. You really need to hone in on your craft and develop as a player which is something I’ve been working on.”
The Work Behind the Scenes
Generally, athletics and schooling are separate in European countries. Agu, Ouattara and Zunk all explained that they played for club teams outside of their respective institutions. Those clubs teams might practice 2-3 times a week and compete in games far less often then a typical 10 or 11-game American high school schedule.
Agu and Zunk were at least able to get a taste of a high-pressure, competitive season when they helped Rabun-Gap to the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association championship game in November. Ouattara played six games for the Cologne Crocodiles in 2021.
“I think summer was huge—getting them in summer school, getting them acclimated,” Vanderbilt director of program performance Jamie Redmond said. “They got them acclimated before school even started. It was pretty tough on them. They would leave practice and go to class for the rest of the day, but they are all very capable. They did a great job and that’s the reason they’re doing so well now.”
Redmond oversees the strength and conditioning, nutrition and athletic training for all the Commodores. That’s a more challenging directive when handed three players who are novices to the game who are also just scratching the surface on how to properly train to play it.
But the former Montgomery Bell Academy coach and administrator looked at the bigger picture and said having international student-athletes on the roster can only pay dividends in the longterm.
“You want the academic piece and the athletic piece that’s going to make the whole program grow,” Redmond added. “They bought in. They have an academic mindset and just happen to be really good athletes.
“For us to bring those guys into our culture is good for our team, for them to be able to mingle with someone from a different country. It’s healthy for the whole campus.”
Getting the trio on the field hasn’t been as easy as the snap of a finger, however. Because of recent changes mandated by the Department of Homeland Security, incoming first-year students to any U.S. college or university must enroll with a full-term course load as defined by that respective institution.
Thus, when Agu and Zunk enrolled during Vanderbilt’s first academic term over the summer, and when Ouattara arrived for Vanderbilt’s second term, the minimum number of academic hours each had to take was 12.
Vanderbilt’s director of new student-athlete recruitment and transition Ricky Thrash explained that if not for a cross-campus collaboration then Vandy’s new European trio might not have been able to contribute so quickly—if at all.
Agu, Ouattara and Zunk aren’t the only non-natives inside the program. Senior punter Matthew Hayball was born in Australia and defensive ends coach Jovan Haye, a former playing star for the Commodores, was born in Jamaica. But the new expectation is that there will likely be more international Dores down the pipeline coming to play for Lea and for Vanderbilt in the years to come.
“They seem to have settled in really nice,” Lea said of Agu, Ouattara and Zunk. “We’re pleased with what they’ve done both off and on the field.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.