Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mike Iupati's NFL Draft Story

Iupati has come a long way in a short time. He was born in Samoa. He was 14 when his family moved to the United States. He never played football until he was in high school. He enrolled at Idaho as a Prop 48 recruit, but by the time he was a senior he was the top lineman in the Western Athletic Conference.

Big and nasty are the words most often used to describe him. Some people wonder about the competition Iupati faced in the WAC. He was dominating the opposition, but what does it mean if the opposition is Hawaii and San Jose State? Iupati heard the questions, but didn’t let it bother him.

“I never had any doubts,” he said, referring to his ability. “I know it was a small conference, but I love to compete. I’ll compete with anybody.”

Iupati played his best against the better teams such as Boise State and Fresno State. He played well against Southern Cal in his first varsity start. He also made a strong impression last month at the Senior Bowl when he went up against the top players in the country.

At the Senior Bowl, the coaches moved Iupati from left guard, the position he played all through college, to right guard and also left tackle. The pros wanted to see how he looked at different positions. Many scouts feel Iupati has the athletic ability to play left tackle in the NFL which would obviously enhance his draft status.

Typically, guards are not selected high in the draft. The last time a guard was taken in the top 20, it was Virginia’s Branden Albert who was selected 17th overall by Kansas City in 2008. But the Chiefs drafted Albert with the intention of moving him to left tackle. Some teams have similar thoughts about Iupati.

How would he handle the switch? At the Senior Bowl, he was beaten a few times in pass protection and reacted by clutching and grabbing. He also knocked D’Anthony Smith, a defensive end from Louisiana Tech, flat on his back in a one-on-one drill. It was a mixed bag, but most scouts gave Iupati high marks overall.

“I need a little time with it,” Iupati said, talking about mastering the tackle position. “I’m naturally aggressive. I like to come out of my stance and deliver a punch. Pass blocking, you have to be patient. I’m learning that. But I’m a good enough athlete, I know I can play out there.”

Told that tackle, especially the blindside tackle, was now a glamour position, Iupati said he was aware of that.

“That’s where the money is,” he said with a smile.

With that in mind, Iupati has enlisted the services of Jackie Slater, a Hall of Fame tackle who played 20 seasons for the Los Angeles Rams. Slater spent the past month working with Iupati on his technique and footwork, teaching him the fine points of playing tackle in the NFL.

There is no doubt with his size and strength that Iupati could play guard in the pros. He could also step right in at right tackle, which is more of a power position. But it takes a different skill set to play left tackle, a player who is strong and also light on his feet. He has to take on speed rushers like Trent Cole and DeMarcus Ware of Dallas and win those one-on-one battles.

Iupati has all the tools, but he will face an adjustment period if he moves to left tackle. However, if the Eagles were to draft him, it wouldn’t be an issue because they already have their left tackle in Jason Peters. They could put Iupati at either right guard or right tackle and make themselves better immediately.

But most draft analysts don’t see Iupati staying on the board that long. Mike Mayock of the NFL Network thinks Iupati won’t make it past Pittsburgh at No. 18. The Steelers’ line has been leaking for awhile – 96 sacks allowed the last two years – so adding a player such as Iupati would make life much easier for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Iupati’s story is a good one. His parents came to the United States because they wanted to give their four children a chance at a better life. At the time, English was their second language. Mike still was struggling with it when he went to high school.

For a year, the family lived with an aunt in Anaheim, Calif. Actually they lived in the aunt’s garage. Later, they moved to a small apartment. “We lived paycheck to paycheck,” Iupati said. “It was hard.”

But Mike made a name for himself on the football field. He was recruited by Idaho but because of his poor English skills, his grades weren’t very good. He had the option of enrolling at Idaho as an academic non-qualifier with a chance to earn a scholarship after one year. There was one problem: he had to pay his own way the first year.

“I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to put that [hardship] on my family,” Iupati said, “but my parents insisted. They made so many sacrifices for me, I feel like I owe them everything. They are my inspiration.”

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