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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005

NFL focuses on Japan development


Staff writer

After all the years of Japanese players failing to make it to the NFL, it has been decided that now is the time to get serious and make some changes to this sorry showing.

A total of 59 players have been selected via a testing combine of NFL Europe (NFLEL), which has been held every year in Tokyo since 1996, but every one of them who has dreamed of playing in the NFL have not made the grade.

The NFLEL and NFL Japan changed their developmental program last year, realizing that it requires time to improve Japanese players and take them to the higher levels and, ultimately, to the NFL.

"Our approach is a little bit different now," said Tony Allen, NFLEL's director of international player and football development, who has visited Japan each year for the combine since 1996.

"This is because we want to work with (the Japanese players) closer. Before, we used to rely on federations alone and players alone, hoping the players develop by themselves."

Now Allen and the NFLEL look at younger athletes rather than veteran players, because the earlier they identify talent, the more time they have got to develop them.

Allen said the average age of the Japanese players selected for the NFLEL camps used to be about 27, but now it's 23.

On Tuesday, eight local players -- linebacker Rikiya Ishida, quarterback and Waseda University coach Kentaro Namiki, wide receiver Noriaki Kinoshita, wide receiver and Ritsumeikan University coach Shoei Hasegawa, Ritsumeikan University defensive back Ryota Hori, and the X League side Onward Skylarks' offensive lineman Masakazu Goda, wide receiver Michihiro Ogawa and defensive back Ryota Hori -- were selected based on their previous performances and via a testing combine held on Sunday.

Besides the eight men, the NFLEL also picked up defensive back Koki Kato, of Kanazawa University, as an NFLEL developmental player.

"I want to go to the NFL no matter what it takes," said Kinoshita, who played for the Amsterdam Admirals last season. "Japan's football will become more popular if someone plays in the NFL."

As Allen noted, the selective players are young and unsophisticated.

The oldest player is 27-year-old Goda.

"We've started bringing the players right out of college before they become veterans in the X League this past couple of years," Allen said. "(Because) if they have athletic ability, we want them to work with us as soon as possible."

Richard Kent, football development officer of the NFLEL, has been in Japan since Sept. 1, searching for talented locals of all over the nation. He not only watches collegiate players, but all levels, including high school and junior high school.

Kent said he has traveled mainly around the Tokyo metropolitan area and Osaka area to look for talent, but he has also collected information on players of areas he can't physically visit, such as Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kyushu, using his vast network.

Overall, he spotted more than 3,000 players from about 140 teams and schools in Japan this season.

The NFL International and NFL Japan are now co-working on grassroots activities, such as flag football, football clinics for high school players, to find younger athletes and enhance the number of players in the nation.

Kent's scouting is part of the activities as well.

"The younger the players are exposed to the (NFLEL's) program, and the sooner they become involved in playing football, they'll have a better chance to develop," said Kent, who is in his second year in Japan in charge of the scouting duty.

The NFL International began the new football development program last year.

It is to provide more National Players (non-American players) onto the NFL field.

One of the attempts was to create spots for international players on the NFL practice squads.

In the 2004 season, four NFLEL National Players had spots in each practice squad of NFC West teams. In the 2005 season, the spots have expanded to eight, which were apportioned to the NFC South and AFC West teams.

Allen said it is possible to expand it to 12 for the 2006 season and hopes to eventually make spots in all 32 teams of the NFL in the near future.

But there are a lot of things Japanese football players need to work on.

They lack physical strength, and also English language skills, which are vital to communicate with teammates and coaches. Many players are also nervy, which will affect their performance.

Allen says players need to make a serious effort to break free of these constraints. If they do, rewards beyond their imagination are waiting for them. In the 2005 season, national players that make NFL practice squads are given an annual salary of $90,000.



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