Growing up in Gistel, Belgium – a coastal town 15 minutes from the North Sea – Tibo Debaillie knew since age 9 that he wanted to play football for an American university. So about three years later, he joined a league comprised of players already in their 20s.
"There was nobody in my age category," he recalled, estimating that he was already 5 feet 9 at that time. "When I started playing, I had to play against 20-year-olds, and I was still 12 or 13. So it was rough, but I really liked it."
That determination helped Debaillie (pronounced TEE-bow DE-buy-yea) land at Towson where he is about to embark on his sophomore season as a defensive lineman. Debaillie and redshirt junior outside linebacker Malik Tyne, who hails from Ontario, Canada, are two of the Tigers' international players who have quickly acclimated to American football despite their relative inexperience in the sport.
"I think they've done a great job picking up the calls, picking up the terminology," said senior inside linebacker Diondre Wallace, a Baltimore resident and Arundel graduate. "All of us use the same vernacular here, and they do a really good job of communicating. One's kind of outside of me, and one's kind of right in front of me. So it's been really easy. We just make sure we communicate. We make sure we work on that, communicate with each other, communicate with the team, communicate with the coordinator, and everything's been fine."
Debaillie said he was exposed to football at an early age by his father and three uncles, all of whom played football in Belgium. Debaillie gave up soccer for football, and because high schools in his home country don't offer football as a sport, he joined the Ostend Pirates, winning a Belgian championship in 2016 and getting named Player of the Year each of his last two seasons.
After refining his technique by watching videos on YouTube, working out on his own and getting coached by his father, Debaillie sent video clips to college programs, and Towson, Albany and Massachusetts expressed interest.
"There is some film, and he's killing people, but he looked like a man among boys," Tigers coach Rob Ambrose said. "They go, 'Well, aren't you worried about the European thing?' I go, 'Look, if we're watching a kid getting recruited from high school film, I should see him dominate.' "
The 6-3, 275-pound Debaillie said the biggest adjustment involved the tempo of the game in America compared to the pace in Belgium.
"It's just a lot faster," he said. "The O-lines are so [much] more athletic and faster. The running backs are much more shiftier and quicker, and if you try to tackle them with one arm, it won't work. In Belgium, I could do that, [but] not here. And everybody's a lot stronger as well and bigger, and I had to just get used to it."
Tyne, whose family is from Jamaica, was a much closer prospect, attending John Carroll in Bel Air to play basketball. After considerable persuasion from former John Carroll football coach Keith Rawlings, Tyne picked up football in his senior year.
"I was just like, 'You know what? I might as well,' " he recalled. "They made me play running back. I didn't know what gaps were, I didn't know what anything was. They gave me the ball and made me run with it. That was my first introduction to football."
After carrying the ball 48 times for 381 yards and six touchdowns and catching five passes for 50 yards, Tyne selected Towson from a group that included William & Mary, Rhode Island and Delaware. And he welcomed a change to outside linebacker.
"Did I want to play defense? Yeah, I did," he said. "Honestly, I was tired of getting hit. I'd rather do the hitting."
Tyne, who now stands 6-2 and 235 pounds, conceded he did not know how to strap on his helmet or his pads at John Carroll, and Ambrose said his unfamiliarity with the sport showed in his recruiting film.
"I remember distinctly watching a play where he ran away from the entire team and one guy had an angle, and he just kept going on the angle and then said, 'Oh, he's out of bounds,' " he said. "Malik had no idea. He was like, 'Why'd they blow the whistle?' That was his highlight. He was a talented, raw guy."
Both players enjoyed mild success last season. Tyne finished with 16 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 2½ sacks in eight starts, while Debaillie had seven tackles and one sack in 11 games.
Both Tyne and Debaillie said they are eager to help the defense reduce last year's averages of 23.9 points and 356.6 yards allowed per game.
"You definitely want to turn that number around," Tyne said. "But last year, we had a lot of injuries, and I feel like that kind of hindered us, and honestly, the team has been coming together really well as a defense and on offense as well. But I think we'll turn it around this year."
Ambrose said he appreciates Debaillie and Tyne's presence because they have a fresh approach to football.
"Some guys who play football all their lives have preconceived notions of how they should play and when they should take plays off," he said. "These guys don't know any better. So it's plug them in, press a button and let them go. And they actually change the attitude and tempo of the defense when they're playing. The more they play, the better off we will be."