Saturday, May 8, 2010

Seeing Is Believing With Iupati

 It looked like something out of CGI. As we were watching the highlight tape of Idaho’s mammoth guard Mike Iupati (pronounced “e-U-pah-tee”), the sequence on the projector screen made no sense.

A group of the 49ers’ beat writers and columnists had gathered in the team’s defensive meeting room, invited by Director of Player Personnel Trent Baalke, and nobody could recall seeing anything like what Iupati had just done to some poor Utah State defensive lineman since the days of Reggie White.
While Iupati’s right arm was preoccupied with keeping another would be pass rusher at bay, he literally threw an opposing tackle to the turf with his left arm. The guy was completely airborne for a second, “de-cleated” as the expression goes, before landing on his ample backside and wondering what was the license plate of the truck that just launched him into orbit.

“You could say this guy’s not going to be playing in the NFL,” Baalke conceded, referring to Iupati’s hapless victim, “but that’s still a 270-pound man he’s tossing away with basically one hand.”

That play against the Aggies was just the tip of the iceberg with Iupati. Time after time Baalke showed us clips of him exploding off the snap, driving his man backward and then hustling to neutralize a linebacker on the second level before the guy hardly got out of his stance. He was opening holes big enough for semi-trucks to barrel through, with room to spare. “Watch the quickness in his feet,” our narrator said, to no one in particular. “Watch how quickly he gets into his blocks. This guy really knows how to finish stuff.”

He was having a far harder time struggling to contain the excitement in his voice than his prized pick was of containing the anonymous gentlemen across – and subsequently beneath – him. Guards are seldom taken in the first round in the NFL – after all, the common stereotype about them is they’re just failed tackles – but Baalke made it clear when he started the video, in case we would be too blind to understand what we were watching, that Iupati, whom the 49ers selected with the second of their two first round picks at 17th overall, was different enough to be an exception.

“This guy has a chance to be special,” he began. “He plays with violence, he’s powerful, and he’s very athletic for a big man. You don’t see 330-pound guys come off the ball like him very often, not in college, and not in the NFL.”

Baalke, who revealed that the Niners were prepared to take Iupati as high as 13th overall if tackle Anthony Davis was already taken, certainly wasn’t the only person to notice Iupati’s talents. The native of American Samoa has garnered just about every major collegiate honor one can. Idaho is hardly a football factory and Iupati was the first Vandal since Jerry Kramer – also a guard – in 1957 to earn All-American accolades. The difference is that Kramer, who was brilliant enough in his pro career as a Green Bay Packer to be named to the NFL’s 50th Anniversary Team, only managed to get an honorable mention in the All-American voting, while Iupoti received numerous first-team mentions. He also became the first non-BCS school player since Louisiana Tech’s Willie Roaf in 1992 to be named as a finalist for the Outland Trophy, which goes to the best lineman in the country.

Named as a first-team All-American by the NFL Draft Report, the Walter Camp Football Foundation, The American Football Coaches Association, the Football Writers of America, the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated, Iupati was also an obvious first-team all-WAC selection and the only active member of the WAC’s All-Decade Team. One would think that a young man with his stature would be the type to trumpet his accomplishments and pound his chest like the metaphorical “beast” that he is, but in person Iupati’s a quiet, laid back, introspective kind of guy, and a bit shy when surrounded by microphones. One quickly gets the impression that he feels far more comfortable facing some hard-charging 300-pound defensive tackle than a 5’9, 180-pound guy with a recorder and a notebook full of questions. When asked during his introductory conference call if he plays with a mean streak, Iupoti replied with an ironic, “Yes, sir.”

What attracted him to Head Coach Mike Singletary, besides the film, was Iupati’s background. His family moved from American Samoa to Garden Grove, California, near Anaheim, when Iupati was fourteen. He had to pick up English on the fly, and as a consequence his grades suffered, making him a Prop 48 – academically ineligible to play his first year. Because of that, most programs ignored him. Johnny Nansen, an Idaho assistant back in 2005, saw Iupati at a barbecue a junior college was throwing and offered him a scholarship and a place on the Vandals the next day. He also had to convince the youngster and his parents that Idaho was a better option than junior college. The rest, as they say, is history.

“We moved here for education to have a better future and my parents sacrificed a lot,” Iupati explained. At first, he had no idea that football would be his calling. “No, not really,” he said. “We came here to better ourselves and this is the land of opportunity. I went to high school and I realized that football was something that I really liked and something that I wanted to pursue.”

Seeing the kid with his own eyes and hearing him talk about his family, about the sacrifices they made, listening to him express the debt he owes his parents and believing the sincerity of Iupati’s words was enough to convince Singletary that he was looking at a future 49er.

“I think Iupati, simply by some of the things that he’s been through, coming over and trying to learn the language and adapting to a couple of new different coordinators, being a defensive tackle first, he’s a very proud young man,” he said, adding, “[Iupati] wants to do things for his parents and his family. He’s very appreciative. He knows exactly where he’s come from. He’s a guy that wants to give back to the community. He wants to give back to his family. He’s all about giving. There’s a tremendous amount of maturity there.”

There’s also a tremendous amount of Iupati there. It’s one thing to watch him on tape or to listen to him speak. Standing next to the monstrous rookie is quite another experience altogether. Actually, to be more accurate, one doesn’t stand next to him so much as stand at the base of him. Like Mt. Everest itself, the sensation of having to face Iupati will make many opponents lightheaded and requiring an oxygen tank. I don’t know if he’ll be the next Steve Wisniewski, but I’m positive I don’t want to be anywhere near Iupati when he’s angry – or even hungry.

One person who won’t be afraid of angering Iupati (in fact, the relationship will be the other way around) is Offensive Line Coach Mike Solari, who spent three hours with his future pupil during his pre-draft visit in the class room, going over film and the 49ers’ playbook. He came away impressed with the amount of ground they were able to cover in that time. “We sat down with him and put an installation and saw how much he could learn and explain back to us,” Solari said, adding, “It was quite a bit.”

Solari went on to describe Iuapti as the best guard in the draft and the best lineman at the Senior Bowl and said that he expects his young mauler to have a much easier time at the beginning run blocking than in pass protection. “The hardest adjustment is pass protection,” he said. “They’re just not used to the skill and speed of these rushers. You’re not used to counter-moves in college.”

Iupati’s got all the awards and honors, he’s got the admiration and blessing of his coaches and he’s got the stats on his side as well. During his senior season he led all interior linemen in college with a blocking consistency grade of 90.38 percent and did not allow a sack in 396 pass plays. He recorded 102 knockdowns/key blocks to go with nineteen blocks resulting in touchdowns and nine blocks downfield. He spearheaded an offense that ranked ninth in the country in total yards (451.4 per game), 12th in passing (286.7 yards per game) and 20th in scoring (32.7 points per game).

The only question about him is the level of competition he faced in the WAC. While Iupati played virtually error-free the whole season, he was beaten for a sack at the Senior Bowl. However, he was lined up at right tackle at the time, a position he hadn’t played all year.

“I can play anything,” insists the former Vandal. “I just need repetition. I know I played guard in college and high school, but I know that I can transition outside if they need me to.”

Right now the 49ers like him just fine at left guard, thank you, and the plan is for Iupati to compete with incumbent David Baas for the starting job. Baalke dismissed the concerns about how his second pick will fare facing the best of the best. “Did he line up against USC every week?” he asked before answering his own rhetorical question. “No. But what we look for at the small school level is dominance, and whoever he lined up against every week, he dominated.”

Indeed he did. I’m almost positive George Lucas or James Cameron weren’t involved, even if Iupati looks as tall as a Na’vi and as wide as Jabba the Hutt

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