ORLANDO, Florida — Looking down the roster of an Under Armour All-America Game reveals hometowns familiar to anyone following college football or U.S. geography: Palm Beach, Houston, Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Dallas, Detroit, etc.
But Volders, Austria? That’s different
That is where 2019 offensive tackle Valentin Senn hails from. Standing 6’7 and weighing 285 pounds, Senn is hard to miss.
Senn signed with Colorado, more than 5,000 miles from home, during the Early Signing Period. But the story of how he became a college football prospect is more interesting.
Senn did not start out as a football player. Like most kids in Austria, he played soccer.
“A friend of mine with whom I played soccer, he was starting to play football. He was always like, ‘Come join me, play football.’” Senn said.
At some point, any recruit has to commit to football. That might happen later in Europe. When he was 15, Senn took the plunge into the game.
“I came to one practice, and from that moment on, I just loved the game.”
But Senn did not start out as an offensive lineman. He was actually a receiver.
“I started out as a receiver, but then moved to tight end because I grew bigger. And now I ended up as an offensive tackle.”
It’s a point of pride for Senn that his Innsbruck team won the Austrian championship over a team from Vienna, a city 15 times more populated.
To get linked up with American college teams, Senn got help from a German-born former NFL player who specializes in those relationships.
Björn Werner, a Berlin native, played his college football at Florida State. He now runs Gridiron Imports, an organization that helps European players get to the states for college.
Werner was placed in an American boarding school with help from a now-defunct program affiliated with NFL Europe. When he got out of the league, he wanted to be able to help European players get a chance to play football in America.
“Schools are more willing to offer European players now than they were when I played,” Werner said. “So it’s not as important to play high school football in America, but schools do want to see players in person. We help them get to America for college camps.”
Because American football is relatively niche in Europe, Werner says that when a player stands out on a European team, he gets noticed. And word spreads fast to Gridiron Imports, which will review the player’s highlight tape, share it with colleges, and organize camp tours stateside.
Over the last three recruiting cycles, Werner said his group has placed 70 recruits in the states.
“I love playing the mentor role, both for the highs, but also for the lows,” Werner said, noting that the experience for European players can be tough and unfamiliar.
As Senn came up, Werner got in touch, “saying he was interested in getting me on a camp tour,” Senn said.
From there, one program’s camp would lead to another.
“In June, I went to some camps, and got some offers,” Senn said. He said that Werner told him to be first in line and go hard. He described his first camp (at Rutgers) as “huge.”
Word spread after that.
“We went to some MAC schools, Rutgers, and he was getting offered so fast, I realized, ‘Holy smokes, he might be a [power conference] kid,’ ya know?” Werner said.
They started on the East Coast.
“Then Colorado got wind of it,” Senn said.
So he visited Boulder and later camped there.
Colorado still had to like Senn, and he still had to like Colorado.
He performed well at Colorado’s camp and received the Buffs’ offer. He got 10 in all, including other FBS offers from Buffalo, Akron, and UConn.
“Every camp he went to, he got an offer,” Werner said.
New Colorado coach Mel Tucker liked what Senn could bring and focused on his athletic upside in announcing the signing:
“Another big guy. Tremendous upside. Good balance and body control on the second level. He can road-grade guys, obviously something that appeals to me. You rarely see a guy with this type of size and length with that type of balance and athleticism in pass pro and the run game. He’s got some versatility.
Along the same line, Colorado site Ralphie Report loves his mobility.
The thing that sticks out right away about Valentin is how well he moves. He looks like a tight end out there. He can get down the field hurry and is very comfortable shuffling laterally. He finishes blocks well and the Colorado Buffaloes desperately need athletic bodies at tackle.
For Senn, CU stood out for some of the same reasons it might stand out to any recruit.
“I really enjoy that it’s not only a great football organization, but also a great education,” Senn said. “Also the campus is not too big, so I can orientate and find everything I need to.”
That wasn’t all.
“Colorado’s landscape with the mountains is also similar to where he is from in Austria, with the Alps,” Werner said.
And Senn still had to convince his parents to let him go to school an ocean away.
“They weren’t with that idea from the get-go,” Senn said. “But once they went on the official visit and saw the whole place and the organization, and now they are feeling good about it and are all in, like me.”
After the coaching change from Mike MacIntyre to Mel Tucker, schools started blowing up Senn’s phone. UCLA, Oregon, and Oklahoma State were interested but wanted to scout him in person before offering, Werner said.
“But he is the type of kid who thinks commitment means commitment,” Werner said.
Senn will arrive in July after finishing school in Austria.
There’s an adjustment period for any recruit. But it’s an even starker jump for a player without American high school experience.
As for his week at the Under Armour All-America Game, Senn said that he had no clue how he’d stack up against the other competitors.
“It’s overwhelming, everything,” he said. “I’m like — still, I need time to process. It’s huge. In Austria, football is growing, but it’s a long, long way until it is like it is here. I’ll give my best and see where I am at.”
Senn didn’t looked like the best player at the event, but he did look like he belonged.