Vanderbilt Football has provided a home away from home for Matthew Hayball, Yilanan Ouattara and Darren Agu. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Vanderbilt Football has provided a home away from home for Matthew Hayball, Yilanan Ouattara and Darren Agu. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Lexie Perez

All roads lead to West End: An international journey to Vanderbilt Football

A deep dive into Vanderbilt Football’s international stars as the team hopes to get back in the win column this season.

A star punter, a talented, run-stuffing defensive lineman and a tenacious, pass-rushing defensive end. What do these players have in common? At first glance, one might think nothing, but when it comes to the Vanderbilt Football team, they share one special perspective. Matthew Hayball, Yilanan Ouattara and Darren Agu are all international players who took unique journeys to Vanderbilt. 

These players’ path to football didn’t take the conventional route that modern-day recruits often experience. All three were introduced to football late in their young lives, with two not even touching a football until the age of 16. However, despite not playing football from a young age, all of these players are now bright spots on this Vanderbilt roster. 

For Vanderbilt, competing with the rest of the SEC for top recruits can be difficult. The Commodores don’t yet have the NIL resources to attract the very best high school players. However, head coach Clark Lea has made it a priority to find international “hidden gems” with the potential to make an impact on the field. Hayball, Ouattara and Agu are examples of such gems and have all earned starting roles on the team this year.

Their stories from growing up outside of the U.S. are unique. Each of them found football through different influential people in their lives, like parents, coaches and friends. However, they all share one thing: a personal determination to find football and a stellar work ethic to play at the collegiate level. 

Whether from the countryside of Australia or the busy streets of London, Hayball, Outtara and Agu are the rare international players that have made a significant impact on Vanderbilt’s Football team. 

Matthew Hayball

It’s not often that a punter is noticed. But for Matthew Hayball, he deserves every bit of the attention that he is receiving. Hayball is a special teams star, averaging 49.16 yards per punt, the second-best average in all of college football. Not only is he one of the best punters in the U.S., but he also has one of the most unique stories in college football. Hayball hails from West Adelaide, Australia, where he grew up playing a variety of common Australian sports.

“I played cricket and basketball, but AFL [Australian Football League] was my main sport,” Hayball told The Hustler. “That was the sport I always played with Australian rules.”

Hayball described Australian Football as a combination of rugby and soccer. Players can pass the ball around the field by punting it to each other. This is where he developed an innate ability to kick the football 50+ yards down the field. 

However, while Hayball may not have played American football during his childhood, he was well aware of the sport at a young age. 

“I’ve had an interest in American sports for quite a while,” Hayball said. “I’ve been following American sports since I was pretty young.”

This knowledge of the American rendition served him well as he learned more about playing at the college level. After his potential was seen by colleges in the U.S., he decided to attend school in the U.S. He shipped off to FAU for his first three years, perfecting his craft with the Owls and averaging 47.4 yards per punt. The transition from the countryside of Australia to the U.S. was somewhat surprising, but the team and coaching staff helped him adjust quickly. Before long, he felt right at home in the States.

“I was lucky enough to visit a few times before moving,” Hayball said. “There are quite a few similarities, it’s just a lot bigger.”

After his junior season at FAU, Hayball decided to enter the transfer portal. He chose Vanderbilt to continue his academic and football career. 

“Academics was a priority for me, coaching staff was a priority and playing at a high level was a priority. Vanderbilt really ticked all the boxes for me.” Hayball said.

Since joining Vanderbilt, Hayball has emerged as a leader for the team. He has consistently punted the ball over 50 yards, even reaching 71 yards as a season-high against Hawaii on Aug. 26. Not only are the distances of his punts impressive, but his placement as well. Hayball consistently pins opposing teams inside the 20-yard line, forcing them into bad starting field position. 

This has led many to believe he is ready for professional football. 

“Definitely going to be doing everything I can to get to the next level,” Hayball said. “As of right now, I’m just trying to play each game the best I can.”

Hayball has been doing just that, using his punting to help an injury-depleted Vanderbilt defense get as many stops as possible. 

Hayball also feels right at home on West End, enjoying all that the South has to offer, over 10,000 miles away from his hometown. When asked what his favorite part of Nashville was, his reply was quick.

“I wasn’t a big country music fan before I got here but I definitely am now,” Hayball said. “I got to see Zach Bryan last week.”

While Hayball might be a far better punter than the average reader, he shares a love of country music with readers across the U.S. Hayball is one of Vanderbilt’s best players, impressing fans and NFL scouts each week. People don’t often notice or appreciate the punter on a team, but Hayball is an exception as he continues to produce high quality punts on fourth down.

Yilanan Ouattara

Yilanan Ouattara has emerged as one of Vanderbilt’s top options on the defensive line. Ouattara is from Cologne, Germany and was the top German prospect in 2021. Similar to Hayball, he has adjusted to life in the U.S. However, contrary to Hayball, Ouatarra discovered football later in life. 

“I started playing football in early 2019,” Ouatarra told The Hustler. “I played a bunch of different sports growing up to find what I liked; rowing, swimming, gymnastics and tennis.”

He started playing football at the age of 16, which is far older than any typical Vanderbilt recruit. Luckily for Ouattara, his size and speed have allowed him to excel on the field. Despite his superior athleticism, it wasn’t until a friend in high school encouraged him to pursue football for him to step on the field. 

“My parents didn’t know anything about football. That friend from high school had to push me to come to practice,” Ouattara said

Almost two years after he discovered football, he put pen to paper and signed his letter of commitment to Vanderbilt.

“My first contact [with Vanderbilt] was in late November [2021],” Outarra said. “What set Vandy apart for me was the people…since I am so far away from home, I wanted to be with people I wanted to be around.”

Like many, his transition from Germany to the U.S. was slightly overwhelming.

“Everything was different,” Ouattara said. “Being away from home [was] like most college students but on the other side of the world.”

But as with any change, Ouattara began to settle into the swing of things. Now, four years later, it’s safe to say that his friend who encouraged him to play football made the right call. He has had a great season with the Commodores, recording back-to-back games with four tackles against UNLV and Kentucky. Similarly, the sophomore’s brute physicality on the line of scrimmage is promising.

While he has been a more-than-solid addition to this Vanderbilt defense, he knows his journey to becoming a top SEC defensive linemen is still a work in progress.    

“The game in America is way faster and more physical. Back home I could rely on my physical traits… but here, I have to hone my technique.” Ouattara said. 

Ouattara’s upside is high, and he’ll be a critical component to the success of Vanderbilt football in the coming years. His journey to donning the black and gold is unique, and he is proof that determination and grit can be just as important as a player’s experience. 

Darren Agu

Even as a sophomore, Darren Agu has made his presence known on the field. Playing in 11 of 12 games during his first year, he made 14 tackles and added a sack to cap off an excellent season. With another year of experience under his belt, many expected Agu to emerge as a  leader on Vanderbilt’s defense this year. He has proven to be a reliable option for the Commodores at defensive end. However, much like Ouattara, he was introduced to football late.

“I grew up playing soccer my whole life until I was 16,” Agu said. “I felt like I didn’t love the sport anymore so I switched to something I like doing. I was introduced to football at 16. I started playing at a local club team, London Blitz.”

When he first started playing football, his passion for the game was apparent. He didn’t even know the rules, but his raw athleticism propelled him forward. Agu then decided to go to the U.S. for his junior and senior seasons of high school to pursue football. 

“The transition from London to Rabun Gap [high school] was different because Rabun Gap was in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere. I was from the city so it was a different experience. It allowed me to stay focused.” Agu said.

He originally played on both offense and defense, towering over opposing cornerbacks at receiver while pressuring quarterbacks on the defensive line. He developed his top-end speed during his time on offense, and his immense physicality from defense.

“I started playing at receiver, then I got moved to tight end for my size,” Agu said. “ I was recruited to play both sides.”

With two stellar seasons of high school football, the DI scholarship offers started rolling in. Plenty of upper-echelon programs wanted him, including Notre Dame, Alabama, Penn State and Tennessee. After originally committing to play football at Notre Dame, Agu decided to take his talents to Nashville. 

“Coach Haye seemed like he cared for me the most, from a personal standpoint, not just as a player,” Agu said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I feel appreciated, not just for my talent, but as a person.”

Now, almost four years since he started playing football, he is a star on this Vanderbilt squad. In his sophomore season, he has recorded 11 tackles while also recovering a fumble against Missouri. Despite some injuries early in the season that prevented him from taking the field against Hawaii and Alabama A&M in the team’s first two games, he has still been a bright spot on defense. He hopes to finish the season strong and propel the Commodores to some wins during their last four games. 

However, he isn’t just focused on himself as a player, but as a role model for kids back home in London.

“The whole of the NFL Academy [in London] looks up to everyone playing in the US,” Agu said. 

He wants to be an ambassador for football in the U.K. and pave the way for future international players. He recognizes that he has an incredible opportunity to inspire others and promote the game in London. 

Looking forward

All three of these players have unique stories that led them to Vanderbilt, providing new perspectives for Clark Lea’s team. Hayball, Ouattara and Agu are the pioneers of international football in Lea’s program, and they’ll hope to continue to inspire others to pursue their dreams of making it to the NFL by getting there themselves. 

A star punter, a talented, run-stuffing defensive lineman and a tenacious, pass-rushing defensive end. What do these players have in common? 

Everything, as they attempt to advocate for international football and build Vanderbilt’s program.

All of these players will look to make an impact as Vanderbilt plays at Ole Miss next on Oct. 28.

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About the Contributors
Henry Oelhafen
Henry Oelhafen, Deputy Sports Editor
Henry Oelhafen (‘26) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in business. Henry grew up as a Vanderbilt sports fan and loves to talk about both professional and amateur golf. In addition to writing, he loves to play golf with friends, hike and try new restaurants. He can be reached at [email protected].
Lexie Perez
Lexie Perez, Graphics Editor
Lexie Perez (‘26) is from Northern Virginia and is majoring in climate studies and human and organizational development and minoring in business in the College of Arts and Science. She enjoys listening to 70s and 80s pop music, doing the daily Wordle and rooting for the Nashville Predators and Cincinnati Bengals. She can be reached at [email protected].
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