UNLV over the years has tried to broaden its football recruiting reach beyond the Southwest.
The Rebels have pursued players from Florida to Alaska to Hawaii, and coaches even have traveled to Canada and American Samoa looking for overlooked prospects.
Now, under fourth-year coach Bobby Hauck, they are putting Finnish products on the roster.
Senior linebacker Max Ehlert and junior offensive lineman C.J. Backlund played together on the same championship club team, the Helsinki Roosters.
Another Finland player, running back Henri Jussila, a freshman walk-on who could earn a scholarship, rushed for 1,296 yards and 14 touchdowns two years ago as a foreign-exchange student at Layton (Utah) Christian Academy.
Ehlert and Backlund are part of a pipeline that has worked its way through Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., beginning with quarterback Janne Lehtinen, who is playing college ball at Simon Fraser in Canada. Lehtinen’s presence led to Ehlert making his way to Chabot and then Backlund a year later.
Ehlert then signed with UNLV last year, and Backlund — thanks largely to Ehlert’s recommendation to Hauck — followed him this summer.
“If somebody would’ve told me four years ago I’d be playing Division I football in Las Vegas out of all places, I would’ve just laughed,” Backlund said.
Ehlert also suggested to Hauck he look at Jussila. Hauck viewed the video and liked what he saw, just as he did with Ehlert and Backlund.
All have a chance to contribute this season.
Ehlert (5 feet 10 inches, 220 pounds) is competing with senior Tani Maka to be the starting middle linebacker. Backlund (6-4, 285) is listed No. 2 at center. The prospects for Jussila (5-9, 180) are less certain.
As for Ehlert and Backlund, they were like other Finnish boys and grew up playing hockey. Football kept them active in athletics during the summer.
Unlike many of their friends, who thought football was more about creating player piles and making odd noises, they came to prefer the American sport.
“That was the easiest choice of my life,” Ehlert said. “That was so much fun. I loved hitting people. The whole atmosphere around the sport was a little different. It felt like it fit me better. There was more like a blue-collar mentality. The hockey guys back in Finland were more like too cool to work hard.”
Backlund came to the sport about seven years ago. He loved the aggressiveness and wanted to be a part of it. But he didn’t understand football. Not the rules. Not what a three-point stance meant.
Those were just details, though, compared to the big picture.
“I liked what I saw — guys hitting each other, going full speed,” Backlund said. “What’s not to like?”
He picked up the game quickly. Backlund was selected to play on an adult team his first year and knew right then he might be good at the sport. He would go on to play on the national junior and adult teams.
For such players, playing in the United States is the ultimate destination for football, and the best route is to go to a junior college.
Ehlert found his path to Chabot, the transition eased with Lehtinen already on the team. A year later, Ehlert’s presence helped smooth the move for Backlund.
Ehlert, who was born in Germany, made his way to UNLV after two seasons at Chabot.
Now Ehlert and Backlund are roommates, and they speak the Finnish language at home. And with Jussila around, all three have someone who can share the language.
“It’s kind of cool to have your own little secret language,” Ehlert said. “But I have so many good friends on this team. It’s obviously great to have my friends here, but it’s not that big of a difference. I was very happy here last year, too.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.