Utah tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham mentioned a basic blocking technique, and a half-dozen players nodded. Thomas Yassmin just stared straight ahead, his eyes widening.
There's no blocking in rugby. That explains why the Australian is enrolled this month in what Whittingham describes as Football 101, learning the fundamentals of a game that's foreign to him.
Punters such as Ute senior Mitch Wishnowsky and former star Tom Hackett and BYU’s Danny Jones have become common exports from Australia to college football programs, but position players making the journey are rare. Yassmin’s athletic ability made him irresistible to the Utes, who expect him to develop over five years in the program after almost certainly redshirting this season.
“Don't know if it's going to happen this year,” Whittingham said, “but he will turn into a very good player for us.”
Wishnowsky is helping Yassmin adapt to life in America, while acknowledging he's “a little clueless about the game.”
Athletically, though? To play on offense or defense in college football, “You need to be a freak at what you do, and Tom's a freak,” Wishnowsky said. “Tom is huge, he's so fast … just incredible.”
If anything, the legend of Yassmin is likely to keep growing this season, even if he never appears in a game. His athleticism may become slightly exaggerated, like some of his descriptions of Utah’s program in a homeland profile that detailed his recruitment. The 6-foot-5, 248-pound Yassmin was pursued by Oregon and Washington, with a late push from UCLA coach Chip Kelly.
Explaining his pick of Utah, Yassmin told Fox Sports Australia, “You’re playing in front of 55,000 people” (that may be true, by the end of his Ute career in 2022). He also said that in the past two years, “all of their seniors have been drafted” (several, but not nearly all) and that the school’s math and business programs were ranked No. 9 in the country (the David Eccles School of Business is No. 8 in the West and No. 56 nationally, according to Bloomberg Businessweek).
In any case, Yassmin is now immersed in learning the Ute offense, having once marveled, “They bloody name their plays after combinations of fruits and colors.”
In this month's preseason camp, Yassmin has absorbed concepts such as why a screen pass must be caught behind the line of scrimmage to allow downfield blocking and the difference between the field and boundary sides of an offensive formation.
“I won't lie, it's been difficult,” he said, speaking of his overall acclimation.
The coaches keep reminding him this is an multiyear process, and they're convinced he will catch onto everything.
“It's just those little things that you kind of take for granted,” Whittingham said. “Now, what I've tried to impress on him is, 'Hey, don't let any question go unanswered. Stop me if you don't understand a term I'm using.' He's a smart kid; he's got a capacity for learning, and he's not shy.”
The culture of American football in Australia is so limited that Yassmin is unaware of recent success stories including Denver Broncos defensive end Adam Gotsis, who played for Georgia Tech and became a second-round pick, and former Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Jesse Williams, who played for two national championship teams at Alabama after attending Arizona Western College.
Yassmin is familiar with Colin Scotts, who's from the same high school and played for three NFL teams as a defensive end after attending Hawaii in the 1980s.
Yassmin also has ambitions of reaching the NFL, once he figures out everything else about football.
ABOUT THOMAS YASSMIN
Ht./Wt. • 6-foot-5, 248 pounds.
Speed • 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Rugby • Winger, Australian Schoolboys.
School • The Scots College, an independent Presbyterian day and boarding school for boys, near Sydney.
Early arrival • Due to the international dateline, Yassmin was Utah’s first signee in the February recruiting period. His letter-of-intent was faxed at 2:54 MST on a Tuesday — because it already was Wednesday in Australia.
Celebrity greeting • Jazz wing Joe Ingles, also from Australia, tweeted: “Welcome to Utah.”
Description • “Tom’s a freak. Tom is huge, he’s so fast … just incredible.” — Ute punter Mitch Wishnowsky.