INDIANAPOLIS — The first time Evan Neal saw Daniel Faalele, Neal was confused.
“I saw him on the field with the coaches and I was like, ‘Which NFL team do you play for?’ “said Neal, the Alabama left tackle that USA TODAY Sports projects as the top draft pick for 2022.
Then Neal, 6-foot-7, 337 pounds, spoke words he can rarely utter: “He’s huge.”
Faalele was 16 years old.
The phenomenon repeated itself two years later when the 6-foot-8, 426-pound Faalele signed up for Minnesota. In the training sessions of football teams, otherwise larger-than-life men were seduced.
“We were training together and he was doing everything we were doing except he was 100 pounds heavier,” Minnesota offensive lineman Blaise Andries told USA TODAY Sports. “We were like, ‘OK, this guy is very athletic. Lose a few (pounds) because just lose a few – but very athletic.’ “
Faalele has since lost 384 pounds, but still remains in the realm of records. As the 2022 NFL Draft approaches, Faalele is expected to soon become the league’s tallest player. Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown, at 380 pounds, was the heaviest player in the NFL in 2021. Faalele celebrates the build and length that will dictate his pro-level blocking, the power he learned to generate at his impressive setting. But Faalele and his teammates want NFL teams to know: He’s more than just a big body.
“What people don’t understand,” Andries told USA TODAY Sports, “is that he’s actually quite smart.”
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The learning curve
Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, Faalele knew he was big and athletic. He competed in basketball and rugby, the latter of which acclimated the Aussie to the physique he would eventually adopt in football. The pivot began when coaches from the University of Hawaii came to Australia to scout and offered Faalele a football scholarship. More interest in college followed, Michigan coaches hooked him up with the Florida-based IMG Academy. At 16, Faalele moved around the world.
His keen footballing sense hadn’t traveled this far yet.
“It was definitely bad” at first, he laughs at his debut.
So Faalele spent his freshman year of high school in a red shirt, soaking up all the knowledge he could. He aimed to model his trade after high school teammates Cesar Ruiz and Robert Hainsey, now linemen for the Saints and Buccaneers, respectively. Five years of football and exposure to a whole new world have since passed.
“My teenager would be most impressed with how far I’ve come with my football IQ,” Faalele said Thursday from the NFL scouting panel. “Coming in, I really didn’t know anything. Considering how far I’ve come with this, how fast I can learn the playbook, how much my technique has improved, how much I can improve.”
It’s these factors – how much potential remains untapped, how well Faalele has honed his process to maximize success in his pursuit – that Faalele spent his week in Indianapolis explaining.
He relishes interview opportunities to draw his college plays on a board, ready to rehearse the play calls and protections he would be responsible for if the team asking for that rehearsal invests a draft pick. Faalele’s football study was launched more than 10 years later than those of his many American counterparts – but Andries marvels at where it ended up.
“We had arguments about the blocking scheme and how to do things, and he was actually right sometimes,” Andries said.
Andries cites a Minnesota-Wisconsin game in which the Gophers used an inside zone blocking system. Andries thought Faalele was too far off the ball. Faalele suggested he was actually too close.
“He made the call and I accepted, but I argued with him afterwards. He was right,” Andries said. “He’s one of the smartest in the room; my pride is hurt and angry about it.”
‘Sky is the limit’
In the nearly two months until he discovers his next home, Faalele has a plan. He does 30 minutes of cardio a day — on the treadmill or elliptical — as part of his ongoing mission to carve. Looking to master the technique, Faalele points to NFL assets whose traits he hopes to emulate: the Chiefs tackle the strength of Orlando Brown, the 49ers tackle the aggression of Trent Williams and the Cowboys attack the technique of Tyron Smith who “makes everything easy”.
In reality, Faalele knows, the key to such an elegant game is attention to detail. His Aussie rugby days were simpler, the game more lateral and linear. In football: the angles should be sharper in the second tier, the ball moving faster, its vertical play better and the snap count manipulated to its advantage. Faalele also needs to lower his pad level. When does it reach this balance?
“Being able to dominate someone – legally – is really fun,” Faalele said. “I always love eating pancakes and making someone’s day worse.”
With his 31-start college career over, the first-team All-Big Ten runner-up awaits news of his next team, even more excited for what lies ahead than where. He hopes teams will focus less on the 15 years without football and more on his upward growth trajectory.
“The sky is the limit for me,” says Faalele. “I feel like I really have a lot to show and I have a lot more room to grow. I feel like that’s what excites me.
“I have a lot more potential to reach and I think that’s an advantage.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.