Julius Welschof had been on a ski race team for 12 years in Germany before deciding it was time to look for another sport.
He wound up in Jacksonville, Florida, where his family had a friend who coaches tennis. During some down time during his six-week stay, Welschof was shown a football and began to throw it around.
Four years later, Welschof, the 6-foot-6 1/2, 255-pounder — “with good speed,” as he describes himself — is a defensive end who signed this week to play football at Michigan. He is the first European player in the program’s history.
“It was the first time I got in touch with football,” Welschof, 20, told The Detroit News in a phone interview, referring to his trip to Florida. “We went to a preseason game, the Jaguars, and I was fascinated by that. He (the tennis coach) told me I should start playing football in Germany. He said he could imagine me playing college football.
“I didn’t think that would work. There are so many American kids who started playing when they were 6 and 7. But I tried in Germany and found we have club teams here. I found one and started playing there, and did pretty good, pretty fast. It’s not like tennis where you have to start playing when you are 6.”
Brandon Collier, a former defensive lineman at UMass where Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown once coached, created Premier Players International to identify European players who can play American football. He led a summer camp tour this year that Welschof joined.
Welschof worked two jobs to fund his $2,500 trip that included camp visits to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. He still works at a factory, handling the machinery that fills water bottles with water. Welschof, who will study industrial engineering at Michigan, works the mechanical side of things at the factory, where he arrives each day at 6 a.m., five days a week, sometimes six.
He had been committed to Georgia Tech when Brown called to offer Welschof a scholarship to Michigan last Friday night.
“It came unexpected for me,” he said. “I didn’t expect an offer from Michigan. I had to think about everything to decide where I would go. At the end, I told myself, ‘My dream is to play in the NFL, that’s why go to Michigan.’ I think that’s best chance.’”
Welschof called Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh “a big coach with a lot of experience.”
“It was an honor to meet him,” he said.
He and his friends grew up watching the NFL, so he’s still educating them on college football, which isn’t that popular in Gemrany. That’s partly because college games are not carried on what he called “free” TV.
“When I tell them how big the stadiums are, how much people watch, how many people go to games and how much people spend, no one knew that because we watch NFL football,” he said. “But we know about the big schools like Penn State and Michigan.”
Michigan may not know a lot about Welschof, but they know that not only does he have great size, but he has terrific speed. Harbaugh appreciates his raw talent.
“And (he’s) motivated to be good,” Harbaugh said this week. “If you broke down football to me in the simplest form, it would be guys that do what they’re coached to do as hard as they’re capable of doing it, and I have a great vision for him. Believe that we’ll be able to mold him, coach him into a tremendous football player.”
Welschof, who plans to be in Ann Arbor by May or June, said he watches a lot of film of J.J. Watt and Joey Bosa. Because there are not many coaches in Germany who train athletes for the rigors of American football, he has done considerable research, watched online tutorials and devised training plans for himself.
His years of skiing and playing soccer helped, particularly skiing, which teaches you to stay low and builds strong quads and hamstrings. In Germany, the saying is that skiers are made in the summer, he said, so Welschof already was well aware of the discipline required to be a top athlete. He became a self-starter when it came to football.
“I learned how to start a 40 (yard dash). You can save much time if you learn how to do that,” Welschof said. “I tried to film myself and watch it at home. It’s easy if someone knows how to do it. I tried my best to prepare myself. If I have the coach, it would be a lot easier.”
He said the Michigan coaches did not focus much on how they’d like to use him on defense.
“They will see I can develop fast,” he said. “They are the coaches. They know if I’m ready to play. I fully trust them on that. They’re the guys who have experience.”
While Welschof saw Michigan Stadium when he was there for a camp, he said he can only imagine what it is like full of fans. He has no concerns about being homesick.
“I would say I’m able to live on my own away from my parents,” he said. “That’s not a problem for me. I know how to cook — I like rice with chicken and corn. My mom says she will only cook once a day because she doesn’t want to eat as much as I do.”
The Michigan coaches have not set a weight goal for him, but Welschof said he would like to add weight.
“I would like to gain more, but then I have to eat more,” he said, laughing. “I’m looking forward to coming to Michigan because they have someone who cooks for you there.”