This story has been updated.
When college football's early signing period commences for the first time Wednesday morning, it will already be well past Julius Welschof's scheduled lunch hour at the Krones manufacturing plant in Rosenheim, Germany. The 20-year-old has worked at the factory for more than a year, building machines that fill plastic bottles with water, but he hopes his boss will let him have some time off in the afternoon to celebrate perhaps the most important occasion of his life.
Welschof announced Wednesday morning on Twitter that he would sign a National-Letter-of-Intent to play college football at Michigan, flipping a committment to Georgia Tech and making him one of the most intriguing new defensive end prospects in the Big Ten, and perhaps the most unlikely.He still giggles about how he got here.
Welschof was introduced to football in the front yard of a family friend during a visit to Florida four years ago. He started playing with an obscure club team in Germany the following year and took a second job to pay his way to attend several college camps last summer in the United States just to get scouted. Now he hopes that his path will help pave the way for other Europeans who want to play major college football.
"I think coaches are scared about Europeans, because not many know that we have football here," Welschof said.
There were 20 European-born players on the rosters of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams this past season, with only eight playing in the Power Five conferences; all but five of those players played in junior college or at high schools in the United States before moving to their respective programs. With that backdrop, Welschof's rise as a legitimate prospect — some recruiting services graded the 6-foot-6, 250-pound defensive end as a four-star talent this summer — seems even more remarkable. He not only didn't play football at high school in the southeastern German state of Bavaria, but only began to learn the sport by watching YouTube videos by the time he joined a club team at age 17.
"I don't have the experience like everyone else there, because they started playing when they were 8 or something," Welschof said. "So I know I have to do a lot to get on that level, where they are. But I think it's not a bad thing maybe, if I started just three years ago, so I don't have any bad habits that the coach has to un-coach."
Welschof's unlikely path is part of a growing effort in Europe to create more exposure for prospects interested in college football. In this case, Brandon Collier, a 32-year-old former defensive lineman at U-Mass. who had playing stints in the NFL, the Canadian Football League and the German Football League, is working to build a pipeline from his home base in Berlin. Collier has leveraged his contacts in the far corners of the football scene on the continent, which he bolstered during his semipro playing days, to identify prospects. Those players often don't have a chance to compile game film to send coaches in the United States, so Collier must bring them through the summer camp circuit to get scouted.
"The reason that I started it is, I see a lot of talent in Europe. I knew with my network and connections, I could be a person that helped the sport out here," Collier said.
That process began a couple of years ago, when he helped two Europeans sign with schools in the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision: Tibo Debaillie of Belgium inked with Towson to play on the defensive line, and Austrian defensive tackle Maxi Hradecny signed with Duquesne. That inspired Collier to start a service called Premier Players International.
Welschof heard of the tour Collier was putting together for the summer of 2017 and reached out on Facebook, where he told Collier his height, weight, that he could run a 4.5 40-yard dash and that he wanted to play big-time college football. Collier thought Welschof was lying. Welschof — who had relatively little experience to that point, playing tight end and defensive end for his club team, the Munich Cowboys — then drove six hours from Bavaria to meet Collier at a field near Frankfurt to prove it. It was snowing and the temperature was below zero, and Collier couldn't believe his eyes.
"I didn't expect to find somebody like this kid," Collier said.
By that point, Welschof had completed his secondary schooling and an engineering apprenticeship and had made a deal with himself: He would try everything possible to try to get a college scholarship to play football, or he would hang it up and attend a university in Germany. He just didn't know how to earn exposure before he met Collier. His income at Krones wouldn't be enough to cover the nearly $2,000 it cost to tour summer camps in the United States, so he took out an ad in several German newspapers looking for any kind of work. He found a second job at night helping a new home buyer renovate an old house.
Welschof attracted attention from college coaches once he started touring the camps, which included stops at Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. His size was obvious, and it was also easy to see his raw but unique athleticism. He had grown up as a competitive, award-winning freestyle mogul skier in Bavaria, honing his flexibility and mobility in ways that could only help him as a pass-edge rusher.
He had scores of options after his two-week tour and quickly set up official visits to Georgia Tech, Iowa State, Connecticut and Temple for the fall. His two-week tour left an immediate impression on scouts: Schools rushed to offer scholarships and figure out how to transfer his academic records from Germany. Recruiting analysts scrambled to grade him.
It appeared to be a breakthrough moment for European players and also for Collier, who took a stock of other prospects on that trip. That included Swedish offensive line prospect Oskar Andersson, who committed to Temple, as well as wide receiver Zavier Scott, an American-born wide receiver who had been living in Germany and signed with Connecticut after gaining exposure through Collier's tour.
Welschof didn't give up on helping others get recruited after he returned home, either. Last week, before the late offer from Michigan and flipping his commitment from Georgia Tech, he hosted Yellow Jackets defensive line coach Mike Pelton on a visit. It was there that Pelton also saw film of 6-9, 280-pound German defensive end Lorenz Metz and offered a scholarship. It was Metz's first Power Five offer; he also has offers from Cincinnati, U-Conn., U-Mass. and Central Michigan to weigh before signing day, which could be a watershed day for prep prospects across the pond.
"In football, you need speed guys and also tall guys and athletic guys. And I don't think just American people are big and athletic and strong," Welschof said. "I think they're all over the world."