Gijs Rusins casually brought up the idea of his son, Ralfs, playing football as a joke. Taking on the new sport, not prevalent in Latvia, would be a way to keep the younger Rusins active once he finished playing basketball after his graduation from Riga Hansa Secondary School.

And in 2015, when Rusins graduated from the secondary school, it so happened that the Baltic Sea League was still in its infant stage. A team in Latvia, the Riga Lions, was looking for players. So Rusins took a chance at playing the new sport as a joke.

Fast forward more than four years, and his play on the field is no laughing matter for Liberty. The redshirt junior has developed into a dominating presence at nose guard and is central in the defensive line’s revival following two straight dismal seasons. Rusins’ 23 stops from the center of the line are more than he racked up in his first three seasons combined.

“I’m just doing my job and having fun doing it,” Rusins said after the Flames’ most recent victory over New Mexico. “Every play I go full-out. It just happens that they appear to run into my gap. I’m just trying to execute the gameplan as much as I can.”

Rusins, 23, is the first player born in Latvia to play at the Division I level. Others from the country have played at the Division II and III levels, but his debut in 2016 at the Football Championship Subdivision level was a first for his country, and he made history in the 2018 season opener as the first from Latvia to play in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“Basically I’m the first one,” he said.

Rusins’ journey to playing football was 19 years in the making.

His father was a weightlifter and his mother, Vita, competed in skeleton. So Rusins naturally took up athletics at a young age. When he was 4, he began competing in judo, then started playing youth league basketball in fifth grade.

Basketball served as his running sport to balance his work in judo. Rusins was a capable player throughout his eight years on the hardwood, thriving in the post with his 6-foot-5 frame, particularly during his time at Riga Hansa Secondary School.

Rusins looked for something new following graduation. That’s when his father’s jokes about playing football became a reality.

The Baltic Sea League was formed in 2013 with a team in Riga, the capital of Latvia. Rusins, whose frame was filling out, joined the Lions for the 2015 season.

Former college football coach Matt Kessinger, a member of the U.s. Army and employee for the U.S. Embassy in Riga, coached the team and immediately knew the type of talent he had with Rusins on the roster.

“He said I should try out in the United States,” Rusins said of Kessinger, and after three games with the Lions, Rusins found a one-day camp at Liberty University he would attend.

“When I basically came here, there were 15 people here, and I was the biggest one of them, so they just saw my size and I could move and stuff like that,” Rusins added. “I think they showed interest in me and they offered here, so that’s how I ended up here.”

Not much has changed for Rusins since he arrived in the United States in 2015.

He remains the biggest and most imposing force on the Liberty defensive line. The opening play of the defense’s second series of the season encapsulated his impact through the Flames’ first five games of 2019.

Rusins easily broke through the Syracuse offensive line and sacked quarterback Tommy DeVitio for a 5-yard loss in the Aug. 31 season opener. It was a sequence that showcased his explosive initial step and ability to generate power through his hips to dispatch interior offensive linemen. His background in judo helps him finish tackles after he’s wrapped his gigantic hands around a ball carrier.

“He’s had several really good games” this season, defensive line coach Josh Aldridge said after Tuesday’s practice, highlighting Rusins’ nine tackles against New Mexico when he played 33 snaps. “ … He’s just really buying into the process of what we’re doing. Obviously he’s naturally strong. I’m just really proud of him for how hard he works every day. He’s a great practice player, too. That’s a credit to his habits, honestly, [and] his work ethic.”

Rusins credits Aldridge with his development this season, in which he currently is tied for fourth on the team with 23 tackles.

The nose guard had 10 tackles in the first two games of 2018 but fell out of Vantz Singletary’s defensive line rotation and only had three tackles over the season’s next 10 games.

“Coach Aldridge is making me into a new kind of player that I would never be able to play without him,” Rusins said. “I’ve never experienced such good coaching from any coach, no matter what the sport. You can just listen to him and you can understand it, and it really just helps everything about how to be a D-lineman. I try to take in everything that he tells me and just work on my craft.”

Rusins’ initial introduction to football in the United States did not go well.

He redshirted during the 2015 season to develop and acclimate to the style of play. It was during that time, one without the constant drive of a sport, he became homesick.

His life, up to that point, revolved around family, school and sport. He had school, but family and sport were missing for him as a 19-year-old in new surroundings.

“The first semester was rough. The first semester was I felt like I didn’t want to be here and I made a mistake coming here,” he said. “I had a lot of homesickness, but that disappeared after a while. … I can play football more and can focus on my plays on football and games and stuff like that. I don’t really think about that anymore, but of course sometimes the home feeling kicks in and I miss home.”

Rusins played in nine games in 2016 as a backup tight end and moved to the defensive line for the 2017 season.

He played in four games that campaign before tearing the ACL and meniscus in his right knee.

He was awarded a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA to give him three more seasons of eligibility.

“For me, injuries have never been a letting down point,” he said. “But now since I’m healthy, I don’t even think about the injuries that I’ve had, I just keep on going and keep on working my craft. It’s good not being injured basically; nothing to hold me back.”

Aldridge has rotated 12 defensive linemen during the season’s opening five weeks, a showcase of the added depth the coaching staff emphasized in the offseason.

Rusins is a central figure in the play up front, even when he comes off the field and is replaced by either Elisha Mitchell or Elijah James in specific downs and distances.

“All we do, it’s all a group effort. ... We apply 100% on every play,” Rusins said. “If we make a mistake, just forget about it and go to the next play. D-line needs to be the tip of the spear; that’s our group motto. We just need to keep on going. If the D-line is dominant, the whole defense is dominant. Basically the D-line is the unit that can break the game.”

Rusins’ biggest contribution comes through his dominating play up front. His ability to take on one or two blockers allows ends Jessie Lemonier and Austin Lewis to face fewer double teams coming off the edges.

The two, as a result, have gotten off to a strong start to the campaign (Lemonier is tied for 17th in the nation with 4.5 sacks), and the defense ranks at the middle of the pack in the FBS in both sacks and tackles for loss.

“It’s always great to have an interior guy, a nose guard, just causing havoc in the backfield, pushing his primary guy and really pushing the line of scrimmage,” Lemonier said. “That’s definitely big, and he’s making plays.”

Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

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Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

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