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George Karlaftis bull-rushed the center on his first football snap. This was in middle school, so Karlaftis’ already-gargantuan 6-foot, 200-pound frame (by his coach’s estimate) careened past the offensive line into the backfield for an easy sack.
Problem was, Karlaftis jumped offsides and the play didn’t count. The 13-year-old didn’t realize it. He was playing American football for the first time. The Athens, Greece, native had recently moved to West Lafayette, Indiana, following the sudden death of his father earlier that summer and picked up the sport only after conversations with friends and family.
So Karlaftis, confused but proud of himself, trotted over to his coaches after the play to figure out what he did wrong and how he could get better.
“I got past the center, which was easy,” Karlaftis confidently said to his coaches. “But what am I supposed to do next?”
Karlaftis and his coaches laugh now about that moment, the genesis of a football journey that began with blissful ignorance quickly followed by an astounding ascension. Karlaftis rose up to become a four-star defensive end in four full seasons of organized football, then a first-team AP Freshman All-American at Purdue before he finished his collegiate career with 14 sacks in 16 games.
Now, he’s a likely first-round NFL draft pick seven years after picking up the sport.
Karlaftis hasn’t garnered the same attention as some of the other top pass rushers like Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson or Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, but his blend of power and finesse stands out in the class.
His football trajectory was expertly curated. Karlaftis built a plan of action from the moment he decided to play the sport and continues to tweak it as his journey progresses. It started with learning football, determining how to get to a Division I school and how to make it to the NFL.
“I've always been the kind of guy that likes to plan ahead,” Karlaftis told Yahoo Sports in January. “And it's shown to be successful through a lot of hard work, dedication and all that kind of stuff. And that's kind of who I've been, just planning everything ahead, having a very detailed plan."
From Athens to Indiana
Karlaftis doesn’t dwell too much on what brought him to Indiana from Athens. After his father, Matthew, died suddenly of a heart attack in the summer of 2014 at the age of 44, Karlaftis and his family moved to his mother Amy’s hometown of West Lafayette within two months.
Those weeks were a blur for Karlaftis. He had a U16 water polo tournament for the Greek national team, but Karlaftis could barely get in the water. He didn’t even check his grades after taking his seventh-grade finals before hopping on a flight to Indiana in August. Alone.
All he focused on was what came next.
“Certain things happen in your life, and they affect you very differently in your feelings to a certain point. And your emotions can become numb to almost everything else. And that's almost to a point how it’s become for me,” Karlaftis said. “Little things in life just don't really affect me. And I always look forward to what's next. I don't really reflect on the past too much. I learn from them, absolutely. But that's what's next, so that, I guess, whatever kind of mentality you want to call that.”
His father’s death is the reason why he moved to Indiana, but his connection to his father helped him build his strategy for success. Matthew constantly offered words of affirmation, and it helped his son link his genetic advantages with mental confidence. Karlaftis’ father also preached the academic side of athletics, regularly helping his son digest video tutorials of water polo experts while Karlaftis trained as a goalkeeper.
Building a coherent thesis based on copious research was already baked into Karlaftis’ psyche because of his parents. They both earned advanced degrees – Matthew received a Ph.D. in civil engineering at Purdue, while Amy got her MBA from the University of Indianapolis after meeting Matthew at Purdue while earning her bachelors in management.
Karlaftis’ interest in football turned into an obsession, one where he’d fawn over highlights of J.J. Watt and other sack artists, and research how to build himself into a big-time recruit and eventually an NFL prospect.
Pass rushing 101
The learning curve for Karlaftis wasn’t easy. The same guy who can now switch up his moves between a chop rip, a club rip and an arm over the course of a game didn’t know the difference between a 1-technique and a 5-technique, or even how to put on football pads, seven years ago.
“He didn't know anything about the game of football,” said Dan Adams, Karlaftis' middle school coach. “Didn't know how to put his hand down and get into a three-point stance, none of that.”
His coaches loved his size but were so unsure of what to do with him that they tried him out as a kicker as a freshman on the varsity high school team. They even bought him a size 14.5 square toe kicking shoe because he didn’t kick with the side of his foot. But even on special teams, Karlaftis showed his drive. He would sprint down the field and tackle the ball carrier after kicking it.
Karlaftis' kicking days didn’t last long. He slowly built his confidence on the defensive line with small progressions. First: Just slant right or left depending on the play call. Then: understanding gap assignments, stunts and how to stop the run. Former NFL defensive end and Purdue alum Chike Okeafor taught him the basics of hand combat and stances as a sophomore, which immensely aided his elevation.
One of the biggest things Karlaftis needed to fix early was his approach at the line of scrimmage. His coaches had a plan for that – they put the offensive line 5 feet in front of a fence that circled the practice field and forced the defensive linemen to find non-linear paths to the backfield. Karlaftis couldn’t bull-rush, anymore, he had to learn other moves.
"But he came along fast," high school head coach Shane Fry said. "I mean, from going from zero, the little he played in eighth grade, to having some experience at the lower levels as a freshman, to being on the varsity field in 10th grade. ... We were all so patient in realizing he's already come a long way. He's bound to come even further."
All the while, Karlaftis asked a million questions and absorbed film at an impressive pace. He pored over YouTube clips of legendary pass rushers to find intricacies he couldn't learn on the field. He read up on recruiting and how to get a leg up on the competition with his training and diet.
By the time his junior year rolled around, Karlaftis felt the game slow down. He felt confident in himself and his ability to use his body to overpower the competition.
“I was far more advanced than everyone else. I was far more developed than everyone else,” he said. “So I was gaining steam.”
Karlaftis graduated the spring semester of his senior year, something that surprised his mother and his non-football coaches. He was a two-time shot put state champion on the verge of becoming the first three-time winner in school history, and he was also one of the better basketball players on his team. But Karlaftis knew that by leaving for Purdue a full semester early, he’d have more time to prep for his collegiate career.
“I knew in high school, I was the biggest, fastest, strongest, best technique, while in college I was the bottom at the totem pole,” Karlaftis said. “So I had to work in order to get back up at the top.”
Unsurprisingly, that strategy worked as well.
“In a four-month period, he transformed his body like nobody else our strength trainer has ever seen,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “And he was one of those young men that because he hadn't played football a whole lot, he was willing to learn. So if you told him to do something that was in his best interest, man, he went full speed ahead and did it. So I just think when he transformed his body that fast in four months, like, ‘Oh, jeez. This guy, he means business.’”
Fast-forward three years later, Karlaftis saw his weight bump up from 260 to 275 but his body fat percentage fall from 25 percent to 15. He upped his bench press from 275 pounds as a freshman to 335 as a junior. He more than doubled his power clean from 185 pounds to 380 and can now squat 635 and front-squat 505.
“He was here for a purpose,” Brohm added. “He just had a burning desire to prove himself.”
The rise of Karlaftis
Purdue defensive line coach Mark Hagen asks his players to fill out a film review sheet every week to break down their opponent. Each section includes a set of lines for every player on the offensive line and the tight ends – their strengths, weaknesses, tendencies and any other observations from the film.
Karlaftis would return to Hagen with the sheet absolutely filled.
“It was almost like he was writing a term paper on that three-page handout,” Hagan said. “There wasn't enough white space to take more notes.”
That preparation spilled onto the field. He showed off his power almost immediately as a freshman with 7.5 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss in 12 games. A COVID-19 and injury-riddled 2020 season ended with just two sacks in two games, but Karlaftis returned in 2021 with 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
But the tape speaks for itself. Talent evaluators see the strength when he overpowers tackles on the way to the quarterback – as he did against Illinois this past season – or the combination of moves and mobility against Notre Dame when then-Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly tried to double up Karlaftis, but he still found penetration and finished with a half-sack.
It all boils down to Karlaftis' mindset: It's football, football and more football. He says he thinks about the sport 100 percent of the time – when he's eating, dreaming, training, reading. It consumes him, much like it did for the past seven years. Only this time, the goal is bigger: Get to the NFL.
“Before I played a down of football, I knew that football was what I wanted to do,” Karlaftis said. “And I know this sounds weird – but I knew that's what I wanted to do. And I knew I was going to do it at the highest level.”