Jordan Mailata goes from Aussie rugby star to NFL starter
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jordan Mailata said he knew “peanuts” about the NFL when he decided to stop playing rugby in Australia and pursue a career in football only three years ago.
The 6-foot-8, 346-pound Mailata has come a long way in a short time and fared well in his first career start protecting Carson Wentz’s blind side before a national audience on “Sunday Night Football” in Philadelphia’s 25-20 win at San Francisco.
Mailata found out the day before the game he would have to replace injured nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters. He held his own against the 49ers’ injury-depleted defensive line, didn’t allow any sacks and helped open some running lanes. Mailata did commit a false start on a third-and-1 that stalled the drive.
“I’m not trying to fill JP’s boots,” Mailata said Thursday. “I’m trying to make my own name, I’m just trying to be my own person in this sport. It’s an identity thing for me. Being labeled as the guy who played rugby, using that as an excuse for giving up a sack or having a missed assignment, I’d rather have a missed assignment because I didn’t know the play. I don’t want to have a missed assignment because I was a rugby player.”
Mailata began chasing a career in the NFL in 2017 after overpowering players on the rugby pitch while playing for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. He began training at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida in January 2018 and impressed Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland at his pro day that year.
At first, Mailata said he was intimidated by Stoutland’s aggressive coaching. Now, he says their relationship has grown “exponentially.”
“I was like why is he shouting at me? Dude, I just got to America. Stop shouting at me,” Mailata recalled with a smile. “Now, Stout, he’s my guy.”
Philadelphia moved up 17 spots in the 2018 to draft Mailata with pick No. 233 in the seventh round. Mailata didn’t play his rookie season and spent last year on injured reserve. He wowed everyone with his singing voice before proving he could transition from rugby to the NFL.
“Every day that he came into the building here was a new day for him,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “He was kind of relearning the things he learned from the day before, and he has grown in three years, he has grown so much with just understanding the game of football and how to play the game of football, let alone executing the offense. Just learning how to play, just learning how to take a big body and move it around differently than what he was used to. He’s come a long, long way in his development and his growth.”
The 23-year-old Mailata made his NFL debut in Week 1, playing 18 snaps at right tackle. After Peters was placed on IR last Saturday, Mailata got his first chance to start.
“I thought there were some really good things by him,” Pederson said. “He’s a big man, obviously. He’s strong and when he is 100% accurate on what he’s doing on that particular play, it’s hard for defenders to get around him, whether it’s a pass block or a run block, when he’s right. So he’s still a work-in-progress. He’s still like a ball of clay that we are shaping and molding and making into a left tackle.”
Mailata has a tough task Sunday when the Eagles (1-2-1) visit Pittsburgh. The Steelers (3-0) have T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree rushing off the edge. The two linebackers have combined for six of the team’s 15 sacks. Mailata will likely draw Dupree coming off the right side.
“They get after the passer and he’ll have his hands full,” Pederson said. “It’s going to take a solid week of preparation by all of our guys to be prepared for this defense.”
When Wentz first saw Mailata, he was amazed by his size.
“Big dude is your first reaction when you see him and you see the highlights of him playing rugby and you just see a big athlete. And to see him progress and learn this game and learn the details of that specific position, I was so proud of him,” Wentz said. “He’s a great guy, great player.”
Three-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce also was thrilled to see Mailata’s perseverance pay off.
“It was fun to watch a guy who has been working for two years to play a brand new sport to finally get an opportunity to play the whole game, a meaningful game and to play the way he did, I was happy for him,” Kelce said.
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