BRADENTON, Fla. — As the first football practice she’d ever watched neared its conclusion, Ruth Faalele’s eyes remained fixed on the giant wearing No. 72. “I want to scream,” she said, “but I don't know what I'm screaming about.” For Ruth’s 17-year-old son Daniel, Friday’s workout was fairly routine—as routine as a practice can be for a 6'9'', 396-pound Australian left tackle who still hasn’t played in a football game.
Ruth had arrived from Australia the previous evening along with her parents, her brother and her 11-year-old son Taylor. But the clan wasn’t the only group watching Daniel on Friday. Visitors from Alabama, Michigan and Tennessee paid special attention as well. The group of college coaches that attended Friday’s practice was fairly small by IMG Academy standards. During some spring practices, the college assistants scouting the various members of the academy’s superteam number in the dozens. There are players to watch at every position, so schools typically send two assistants at a time. That’s what the Crimson Tide and Wolverines did Friday. Alabama co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach Mike Locksley and co-defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi stood alongside Michigan tackles/tight ends coach Greg Frey and linebackers coach Chris Partridge as the Ascenders warmed up. Tennessee offensive line coach Walt Wells came solo.
When the players began stretching, Lupoi pulled out a small camera and became college football’s most expensive videographer. Lupoi, who just agreed to a contract extension worth $950,000 a year, flipped open the camera and began filming Faalele as he stretched. Lupoi, wearing a suit in the sweltering Florida heat, walked a perimeter a few feet from Faalele and filmed the rising senior from every conceivable angle. Once again, this isn’t unusual for Faalele this spring. Lots of visiting coaches have wanted an up-close look at everything he does on the field. Still, Lupoi’s close proximity prompted a question from Faalele’s mom. "Do you try not to fart?” she said, sending the rest of the family into howls of laughter.
Presumably, Lupoi and the Crimson Tide coaches want to review the video with the hope of answering the question every coach has when he learns of Faalele’s comic-book dimensions: Can a guy that big actually bend?
It’s easy to imagine Alabama head coach Nick Saban sitting in front of the computer in his office—after using his remote control door to shoo a visitor, of course—and watching footage of Faalele twisting himself into a pretzel to get loose before practice. Saban might tent his fingers and say “Good. Good.” Or he might take one look and say “Next!”
This is the conundrum with Faalele. With no actual game footage to watch until August, coaches must use practice video to determine whether they want to risk offering a scholarship to a guy who might physically dominate everyone he faces or might never adjust to the game. Make no mistake: Lots of coaches will try to take a chance on Faalele, who recently was told he needed to eat more to keep adding muscle to a body that looks impossibly lean given his weight. He has more than 20 offers, and he has committed to play in the Under Armour All-American Game. He’s already toured schools throughout the southeast thanks to a bus tour IMG Academy put together for its football team. Faalele hasn’t begun to break down his list. Because America’s universities and their football programs are so new to him, he wants to see as much as he can. “Every college has great facilities,” he said. “It’s just a matter of finding out where I feel comfortable.”
If Faalele adjusts to football, he could be the ultimate left tackle. If he doesn’t, he could be the guy who wipes out the training table but doesn’t make an impact on the field. Fortunately for the coaches recruiting Faalele, in-person looks and video from IMG Academy’s spring practice might be more telling than anything they get from the Ascenders’ games in the fall. At every practice, Faalele must match up against Clemson commitment Xavier Thomas, the nation’s No.6-ranked player, according to Scout.com. Thomas, who is from Florence, S.C., didn’t let anyone block him at home and hasn’t let anyone do it at IMG, either. Faalele also has to block Stephon Wynn, a 275-pound defensive end who is considering Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. And he has to block 280-pounder Kingston Harris, who has offers from Michigan State and Tennessee. If Faalele, who didn’t strap on pads for the first time until last August, can hang with those rushers, he’ll probably be able to block in college.
Like most new offensive linemen, Faalele needs to learn to play low all the time. He needs to learn to use his formidable upper body strength to punch pass rushers and keep them from getting into his body and controlling the action. If he does learn all that—and a redshirt year would make sense to develop those skills—his unique physical characteristics could make him utterly dominant. He already looks natural in a two- or three-point stance, and when he gets his hands on a defender and extends his arms, that defender is toast. If Faalele needs help, he can look down the line and pick the brains of his superstar teammates. Left guard Curtis Dunlap stands 6’5’’, weighs 370 pounds, has offers from much of the top 25 and might be the Ascenders’ most technically proficient lineman. Meanwhile, class of ’19 right tackle Evan Neal (6’7’’, 370 pounds) is nearly as big as Faalele but with more football reps under his belt.
The preceding two paragraphs probably read like gibberish to Ruth Faalele, who flew with her family from Melbourne to Auckland to Houston and then to Tampa before driving to Bradenton. She’s still learning the finer points of football, but she knows when her son is happy. Daniel may be new to the country and new to the sport, but he and his teammates act like they’ve known each other all their lives. “I'm so glad he fits in so well,” she said. “It makes it so much easier to leave him behind.” Ruth got to spend Mother’s Day with her older son, and her younger son got a chance to see the strange new game that has captured his older brother’s heart. Taylor Faalele, a 6-1, 260-pound 11-year-old, looked awfully good wearing Daniel’s helmet. (Though Taylor might need a bigger helmet when he’s 17.) Ruth and Taylor will stay for another week before heading back to Australia. They’ll leave knowing Daniel is just one of the guys on the offensive line even though he might be the next big(gest) thing in college football.
A Random Ranking
The Internet was abuzz this weekend when Axl Rose joined Billy Joel onstage in Los Angeles for a pair of songs. The first was a cover of AC/DC’s Highway To Hell. The second? Joel’s own Big Shot. So this seems like as good a time as any to rank the top 10 Billy Joel songs.
1. The Downeaster Alexa 2. Piano Man 3. We Didn’t Start the Fire 4. Only the Good Die Young 5. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant 6. You May Be Right 7. She’s Always a Woman 8. Allentown 9. She’s Got A Way 10. Uptown Girl
First and 10
1. The future of the Big 12 remained a hot topic last week even though nothing substantive happened that should alter anyone’s opinion. SEC Network host Paul Finebaum stoked the fire Wednesday with comments that Oklahoma was “pretty desperate” to get out of the Big 12 and into the SEC. This may be true among the Oklahoma fan base, but it isn’t within the Oklahoma administration.
Oklahoma president David Boren said as much on Thursday. “I think it’s very important for us to always have the possibility of making a move if we want to, but I assure you that we don’t have any plans to make a move,” Boren told The Oklahoman after a board of regents meeting. “That’s just my responsibility to the institution not to get us into a position where we can’t make our own choice when the time comes. … It’s in our interest that the Big 12 succeed. So no, we’re not desperate to go anywhere else.”
It is in Oklahoma’s interest that the Big 12 succeed. Neither Oklahoma nor Texas—the two schools necessary to keep the Big 12 a viable power conference—could boss around the other schools in another Power 5 conference. Since they make about the same money—thanks to the ability to sell their own third-tier rights—in the Big 12 as they would in the Big Ten or SEC and more than they would make in the ACC or Pac-12, it would take an awful lot to make them give up the power they have where they are.
2. What would make them give it up, as we discussed here earlier this month, is the continued underperformance by every football program not named Oklahoma. If the league continues to rank the lowest in NFL players produced, continues to miss the College Football Playoff and continues to get pilfered in its own recruiting territory by SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten teams, then things could fall apart when the Big 12’s media rights deal ends in the middle of the next decade. But if the football product improves—and we’re really mostly talking about Texas here—then the incentive to leave drops considerably.
3. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby joined myself and Rick Neuheisel Friday on Full Ride on SiriusXM’s College Sports Nation channel to discuss all this.
4. It’s common practice these days for recruits to send a tweet or an Instagram post every time they get a new scholarship offer. Ben Bryant, a quarterback from Illinois who was committed to Wisconsin for the class of ’18, fired out a tweet last week announcing that he had received an offer from Georgia. That announcement prompted Wisconsin to pull Bryant’s offer. Bryant responded by offering a detailed timeline of how events unfolded.
It will be interesting to see how this situation sorts itself out. Bryant has time to find another school, or maybe Wisconsin coaches will have a change of heart. This is less drastic than a committed player visiting other schools. Or maybe the Badgers decided they didn’t want Bryant and were looking for a reason to clip him from the class and this gave them an out. Wisconsin did receive a commitment on May 5 from Cincinnati quarterback Chase Wolf.
5. Washington State freshman defensive back Grant Porter intervened to stop a suicide attempt last week and helped save a man’s life.
6. I broke down the Oklahoma-Texas beef that exploded on Twitter last week.
7. Speaking of the Sooners, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley signed a three-year extension that will pay him $1.3 million a year. This is the biggest salary Oklahoma has paid an assistant coach. It isn’t a coach-in-waiting deal, but they’d love it in Norman if Riley were available to succeed Stoops whenever Stoops decides to retire.
8. Speaking of Stoops, he and wife Carol purchased a second property in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. The new one is next door to one the couple bought in ’06. Before you start the Stoops-to-the-Bears rumors, allow me to present an alternate theory. When Bob does decide to retire, perhaps he’ll join Carol, who retired in ’15 as a Mary Kay National Director, to form the newest house-flipping power couple. Watch out, Chip and Joanna Gaines.
9. ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg wrote an excellent story about how Bret Bielema and Barry Alvarez repaired their relationship after it fractured when Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas.
10. Matt Fortuna of Yahoo!’s Dr. Saturday blog tracked down the owner of that spectacular Nick Saban back tattoo—which kind of looked like Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday—and got the full story.
11. East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery decided to give walk-on defensive end Kiante Anderson a scholarship. But Montgomery decided to break the news by first telling Anderson’s mom, Tia Chapman. The result is Mother’s Day magic.
What’s Eating Andy
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who four years ago claimed the league might de-emphasize athletics if the NCAA lost the O’Bannon case*, is due up to $20 million in bonus payments thanks to his role in helping make the Big Ten gobs of money. My problem is not with Delany getting a huge chunk of change. He deserves it for pioneering the concept of a conference network and for setting up his league for future financial success. My problem is with the fact that the athletes helping to bring in that money are banned from enjoying the same open-market benefits that Delany enjoys. If it’s good enough for the commish, it should be good enough for the players.
*Spoiler alert: The NCAA did lose. The Big Ten didn’t de-emphasize squat because sane people don’t usually walk away from giant stacks of cash.
What’s Andy Eating
When readers head to Austin for business or pleasure, they frequently ask the same question: Is it worth my time to wait in the line for Franklin Barbecue? Franklin makes the planet’s best brisket, but it also features one of the planet’s longest lines. The last time I visited, I waited four and a half hours. The brisket was wonderful, but I thought a lot about opportunity cost. What are those hours worth relative to the quality of the other nearby barbecue experiences that could be had in a much shorter span?
So this is how I answer that question. If the reader absolutely must taste the brisket many—including me—consider to be the world’s best, then that reader should wait in the Franklin line. If that reader wants to taste brisket almost as good and wants to embark on an adventure, I tell them to wait for a Saturday morning and drive to Snow’s Barbecue in Lexington, Texas. If it’s not a Saturday and that reader wants to eat brisket that comes within mere percentage points of Franklin, then I send them 1.4 miles down the street to la Barbecue.
Even during a packed weekend lunch rush like the one when I visited last month, diners only spend about an hour in line at la Barbecue. Even better, all those waiting in line are welcome to grab a plastic cup and pour freely from the keg sitting a few yards from the trailer where the meat is sliced. On my most recent visit, la Barbecue was giving away a delicious imperial stout. Ordering with a free buzz beats the hell out of ordering with the nagging feeling that you’ve wasted an entire morning standing in the sun.
In two trips to la Barbecue, the juicy, smoky brisket came tantalizingly close to Franklin’s and ranked right alongside Snow’s, Killen’s, Pecan Lodge and the rest of the best in Texas. On my first visit a few years ago, I joined Spencer Hall of SB Nation in ordering what appeared—when arrayed on butcher paper with grease pooling in the center—to be half a cow and half a pig. On that visit, the beef rib stole the brisket’s thunder. The tender meat on that massive bone held its own against the beef rib at gold standard beef rib purveyor Louie Mueller in Taylor, Texas. This shouldn’t come as a shock, though. LeAnn Mueller, the owner of la Barbecue, is Louie’s granddaughter and the daughter of longtime Louie Mueller pitmaster Bobby Mueller.
Last month, I ordered brisket, turkey and pulled pork. The brisket was a great as I’d remembered. It had a pronounced smoke ring and great hunks of tasty bark clinging to the meat. I don’t usually recommend pulled pork in Texas. Even though it’s much easier than brisket to cook properly, most places in the Lone Star State treat it like an afterthought. la Barbecue does not. While I would rather they didn’t toss perfectly juicy meat in sauce before serving, I did appreciate the choice of sauce. On that visit, I dined with Texas sports information director Thomas Stepp. Like me, Stepp’s early barbecue experience came in Columbia, S.C. For us, mustard-based sauce brings childhood memories flooding back. I imagine just about everyone else at the picnic tables dotting the food truck park wondered why there was mustard in their barbecue sauce. We just thought about Gamecock legends Mike Hold and Todd Ellis throwing touchdown passes while we munched on pulled pork sandwiches.
The most pleasant surprise was the turkey. Turkey is a high-degree-of-difficulty meat that many pitmasters won’t bother with, but when done well, it makes an exquisite sandwich filler or lean lunch. I was so stuffed from the brisket and the pulled pork that I only had room for a few bites of turkey during lunch. Most smoked turkey is dry and bland. This was moist, smoky and savory. So I wrapped the rest in butcher paper and took it to my hotel. After a few hours in the fridge and a minute in the microwave, it tasted just as good for dinner as it had for lunch. This may not sound that impressive, but it’s the barbecue equivalent of Bill Snyder turning Kansas State into a consistent winner.
The next person who asks me if they need to wait in the line at Franklin may get a different answer. la Barbecue does so many things so well that it may be time to simply advise that everyone skip the long line and opt for the short one with the free beer.