Monday, October 26, 2009

Iupati, Vandal Seniors, Have Paid Their Dues

Moscow, Idaho, with a population of about 24,000, is a tough town in which to hide, especially if you are Mike Iupati.

A mere description of "Big Mike," an offensive guard on the Idaho football team, doesn't do him justice. Yes, he's 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, but that's only part of it. The native of American Samoa, whose name is pronounced "Ee-you-PAH-tee," doesn't appear to have any fat on him, which seems impossible for someone who weighs 325. His head and shoulders, though, are disproportionately large. Three-hundred-and-twenty-five-pound men don't have V-shaped physiques. He does.

He is, quite simply, a mammoth man, which belies his soft-spoken and princely nature.

"He's super nice," quarterback Nate Enderle said. "He'd do anything for you."

What he wanted to do mostly the past three years was win, but that wasn't in the cards for the perpetually rebuilding Vandals. Iupati, who arrived in 2006 and saw limited playing time his freshman year, has been on teams that went a combined 7-29 from 2006-2008.

Give the townsfolk of Moscow credit for basic smarts, though. Whenever the gentle giant went downtown or walked across campus, no one ever said, "Hey, Iupati, you guys ever gonna win again?" Iupati would not have reacted, but why tempt fate?

It's easier to go to the movies or a restaurant or take a stroll across campus these days. The Vandals, who face Nevada at Mackay Stadium on Saturday, are off to a 6-1 start, 3-0 in the Western Athletic Conference, and have become a bit of a national media darling.

"It's nice to have all the community with us and not against us," said Iupati, who is rated as the top offensive guard in the country by, which projects him as a first- or second-round draft pick next April. "Everyone is complimenting us on how good we did last weekend, telling us, 'Keep up the good work. We're proud of you guys.' It's really nice seeing the Vandals (fans) have faith again.

"It's amazing how people listen to you. They never pointed fingers at us. But people listen now, especially when you win. It's fun to win."

Iupati, who moved to the States when he was 14, graduated from Western High in Anaheim, Calif., and arrived at Idaho weighing 340 pounds. He was recruited by some Pac-10 schools that he said backed off when they learned that he might not qualify academically.

He is the face of an offensive line that is a big reason why the Vandals are already bowl eligible (minimum six victories). Four of them are seniors who have a combined seven years of starting experience.

"Our offensive line unit is very close," Iupati said. "We communicate well with each other."

Three of the seniors -- Adam Juratovac, Irvin Stevens III and Bryce Sinclair -- all redshirted, which means they have been at Idaho since 2005. When Robb Akey arrived in 2007 he was their third coach in three years. He was also the fourth coach in a five-year stretch. Now in his third season, he's brought stability to the program.

"These kids had seen a lot of change," Akey said. "When you tell them you're going to do something, you'd better make sure you do it. I told them, 'I'm not going to give you a long list of rules. I'm not the principal or the sheriff. Just do the right thing.' ... Building that trust, that's one of the first things we had to get accomplished."

Iupati and his fellow seniors share a unique and fulfilling bond. There are only 11 of them -- Akey's first recruiting class is made up of juniors and redshirt sophomores -- and they'll leave Idaho, presumably after a bowl game, with a tremendous sense of pride.

"All the hard work we've put in, it means a lot to me," Iupati said in regards to being the first class to turn things around. "I feel like I've accomplished something before I leave."

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