Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hoomanawanui Could Become A Household Name

Rams tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, left, dives into the end zone, beating New England Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes for a touchdown in the first half during an NFL preseason football game in Foxborough, Mass.

Steve Spagnuolo calls him Illinois Mike. But there's also Big Mike. And "Oh-Oh."

Back in Bloomington, Ill., at Central Catholic High, they called him "Ho." Some keep it simple and just call him Michael.

If rookie Michael Hoomanawanui keeps playing the way he has this preseason, you might have to call him starting tight end for the Rams.

"No question," Spagnuolo said. "He's jumped out there, I think that's pretty obvious. He made a great catch with that one hand (against New England). I thought the catch and getting into the end zone for the first touchdown was a really good play, too. He made some blocks as a fullback. Mike's done some good things."

(Hoomanawanui also has been working out of the backfield at fullback.)
It's no mirage, Spagnuolo says. "He's what you're seeing out there, and we're happy he's doing it."

The last name, by the way, is pronounced "Oh-oh-mah-NAH-wah-NEW-ee." Or, like Spagnuolo, you can call him Illinois Mike, since he attended the University of Illinois. In the starting lineup Thursday in place of the injured Daniel Fells, Hoomanawanui caught four passes for 53 yards and two touchdowns.

All of his catches came in the first half against the Patriots' starting defense, meaning all came from quarterback Sam Bradford. Maybe we should get used to this Bradford-to-Hoomanawanui combination.

"It sure was a good combination (Thursday), that's for sure," Bradford said.

"That one-handed catch he had in the first half, that was unbelievable."

Hoomanawanui snatched the ball out of the air like it was a small beanbag. It resulted in a 23-yard gain on the final play of the first quarter, setting up the first of four field goals by Josh Brown in a 36-35 Rams preseason win.

How'd he make that catch?

"Everyone's asking me," Hoomanawanui said. "I don't know; it's just instinct after a while. I felt like I couldn't get my left hand on it, so spread the (right) hand wide open and hold on tight."

He can thank his father, Isy, for the good hands.

"I remember in my younger days when me and my dad would play catch in the backyard," Hoomanawanui said. "He'd 'beam' it at me."

Isy would throw the ball so hard that young Michael sometimes would cry. Occasionally, he'd take it off the chest, off the face, you name it.

"Being 5 years old trying to catch a fastball isn't easy," Hoomanawanui said. "I'd tell him to slow it down. But I guess it paid off in the long run."

When the Rams drafted him in the fifth round this past April, one of the things mentioned by Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney about Hoomanawanui was that he had good hands.

Which begs the question: How could they tell? With eight catches for 112 yards this preseason, Hoomanawanui has caught almost as many balls as he did during his entire senior season at Illinois.

"I think that's about true," Hoomanawanui said, laughing.

It's pretty close. He had 10 catches for 114 yards in 2009, a season in which the Illini passing attack struggled and Hoomanawanui was bothered by an ankle injury, missing three games entirely.

He was thrilled to get drafted by the Rams. How thrilled? He has a tattoo on his hand that reads "4-24-10," signifying the day he got drafted, April 24.

"I pinch myself every day when I wake up," he said. "That's no exaggeration.
There's people all around the world that'd love to be in our position right now. We've got to take this position and run with it."

So far, he's doing just that. Hoomanawanui caught the coaches' eyes with some highlight-reel catches during the Rams' spring minicamps and organized team activities. He did more of the same once training camp started. But it's one thing to do it on the practice field; it's entirely another to do it in a game.

"It's nice to see him take it from the practice field into the game," Spagnuolo said.

"I think all of the young guys gained a little confidence (against New England), and that's a good thing."

No one more than Hoomanawanui. "To know that I can do that against a great opponent like New England, that definitely boosts my confidence," he said. "But there's still a lot of things I've got to work on. So I've got another week of training camp and find out if I make that 53."

He probably no longer has to sweat making the final roster, not that he can sit back and strum his ukulele and relax. Yes, Hoomanawanui plays the ukulele. In fact, he may be the first Rams player ever to bring a ukulele to training camp.

"I just play it in my free time," said Hoomanawanui, whose immediate family is from Bloomington, but who has relatives in Hawaii. "It's nice and relaxing. Fendi Onobun, my roommate (during camp), I think he likes it. He's always falling asleep to it."

Which is something opposing defenses can't afford to do when "Oh-oh" is on the field.

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