Sunday, May 23, 2010

Kennedy Pola Likes New Test


When Kennedy Pola turned down a contract extension from the Jacksonville Jaguars and signed with the Titans in January, he said he was looking forward to the challenges of a new organization.

It looks as if he'll have his share.

The job of the Titans' new running backs coach already has been complicated by the absence of franchise cornerstone Chris Johnson, who's missed voluntary organized team activities thus far in hopes of procuring a new contract.

Also on Pola's plate are a couple of high-profile free-agent rookies: LeGarrette Blount made headlines last season for a nationally televised punch that led to a long suspension at Oregon, while Stafon Johnson is recovering from a devastating throat injury he suffered at Southern Cal last season.

"Sure, there are always challenges," said Pola, who spent the past five seasons as the Jaguars' running backs coach.

"You have a 2,000-yard rusher and the best NFL team two years ago, and then to (try to improve on that), people are like, 'Whoa.' But I love that challenge. You want your players to have that, 'Let's compete (attitude). Let's find a way to get better and let's keep improving. I can sit back and be comfortable, but I want to be improving and keep getting better.' "

One could argue that Kennedy has been dealing with difficulties since the day he was born, Nov. 22, 1963, which just happened to coincide with a tragic event in U.S. history. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated that day, prompting Pola's grieving parents to give their son Kennedy's name as a result. Pola grew up in American Samoa, a small island in the South Pacific, and had to learn to speak English fluently while attending USC on a football scholarship from 1982-85.

"I like teaching because when guys say they can't learn, it's hard for me to understand," Pola said. "I had to learn the English language and the culture here. I was very (hesitant) in terms of not knowing the right pronunciation or the right word, so now it makes it fun for me to communicate. I say to guys, 'I know you can learn. If I can learn, you can learn.' "



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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Viliami Moala: Where Will He Go?

I've chalked Viliama Moala to the Trojans since defensive line coach Ed Orgeron hit LA, but recent events have me, and Moala, hesitating.

The Trojans have already taken two major defensive line recruits in the 2011 class, after inking five-star DT George Uko in the last class. Could Antwaun Woods and Jalen Grimble fill out USC's allotment for DTs in the 2011 class?

Defensive line is also the strongest position groups on the USC defense, and one of the youngest. I'm not sure if another defensive lineman—even one as good as Moala—is their top priority.

Perhaps I'm just looking for a reason to second-guess what should be a slam dunk of a commitment, but Moala is hesitating to name a leader or even to devote too much time to his decision.

Is it because he already has the Trojans picked out? Could he be favoring a school like Cal, one closer to his home and in which he's expressed early interest?

Or is the interest from SEC powerhouses Florida and Alabama making him reconsider the Pac-10?

Nothing ought be said, or even guessed at, until Moala says more.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tago Has The Talent To Be Terrific

Peter Tago gingerly flipped the baseball from the pocket of his glove to the palm of his right hand. Much was at stake at the moment, but Tago carried himself like an old pro, not a nervous high school pitcher. He had runners on first and second with two out and the score tied in the seventh inning of his last regular-season home game. Pitching in front of about 20 scouts with their radar guns trained on him and in a must-win game for his team to advance to the playoffs, Tago was as smooth as his delivery. He stood in the sunshine and flashed a playful grin. He wanted to give his team, Dana Point (Calif.) Hills, the best chance to win. And he wanted to give the scouts what they were looking for one more time.

Tago, whose velocity remained in the 90s through all seven innings, threw a 91-mph fastball for strike one. He fired a 92-mph fastball for strike two, and then snapped off a hard 74-mph curveball to elicit a ground ball for the third out of the inning. Tago gave the scouts what they wanted, and his team gave him what he wanted, a victory rally in the bottom of the seventh.

The combination of stamina, tenacity and competitiveness - not to mention a fastball that has been clocked as high as 97 mph - has made the 6-foot-4 right-hander perhaps the best and most consistent high school pitcher in Southern California this spring. It also may make Tago, ranked No. 29 in the RivalsHigh Top 50 prospects for the Class of 2010, a first-round pick in June's Major League Draft.

"The kids who can maintain velocity deep into games are the ones with the true quality high school arms," said one Major League scouting director, speaking on condition of anonymity - a standard in the profession. "To see a kid that deep into a game throw 91-92 for strikes and snap off a curveball is what separates high first-round guys. He's been better from the summer to the fall to the spring and I think that's why you're seeing his national stock increase. He's going to be somebody's first-round pick."

His readings on a radar gun aren't the only thing that makes Tago different from other high schoolers.

There's also his heritage, a past that makes his future distinct.

Tago is Samoan and Filipino by birth. And while most Samoan athletes gravitate towards football - only one player born in American Samoa has ever made the majors - Tago is all baseball.

"It was always baseball for me," he said. "I loved it from the start."


 
 

Peter's mother, Joanne, is Filipino. And quite an athlete in her own right. After an impressive career as a high school volleyball player at Torrance (Calif.) Bishop Montgomery, she became an All-American setter at Northern Arizona University.

Peter was born in Harbor City, Calif. His biological father was of Samoan decent. When Peter was 2, his mother married Frank Tago, a native of Hawaii who also was Samoan.

Peter grew up in Carson, a region heavily populated by Pacific Islanders, where community, faith, sports and heritage are tightly connected. It was there that baseball became his calling.

"He tried flag football," Frank Tago - himself a former college football player - said. "He liked it, but you could tell it wasn't like baseball for him."

Samoan baseball players are so rare that when Tago began facing players from different parts of the country, some thought he was from the Dominican Republic. Tony Solaita, a power-hitting first baseman for five teams over 11 seasons ending in 1979, is the most noteworthy of a handful of players with Samoan heritage who have played in the majors. None, however, were as highly regarded a draft prospect as Tago.

The journey to this point has been a circuitous one.

The family moved to Bellflower, a suburb of Long Beach, where he played Little League. The family later moved to Dana Point so Tago could follow a travel coach to Dana Hills High.

His progression on the mound required the same amount of effort.

As a high school freshman, Tago was only 5-10. And while he discovered he had the arm speed to throw 90 mph by the time he was 14, he also recognized that he had to develop his talents.

"My mechanics were horrible," Tago said. "I knew early on that I was going to be able to throw hard, but at the time I was just all over the place."

Frank Tago is quick to praise his son's progression on and off the field.

"He wasn't the person or the player he is now," Frank said. "It's something he has put forward since day one. He knows where he's at now. That work ethic is all him."


 
******

Tago was in the weight room the day before his final high school start. It's not an isolated event. Scouts have noted Tago's physical development from the end of his junior year to the end of his senior year.

Then there are his mechanics. He worked to find a consistent arm slot and release point for all his pitches. He worked on his abdominal core strength to improve his balance and coordination.

Tago's fastball velocity improved from 90-91 mph as a junior to 91-93 in the summer. This spring, Tago took the next step. He elevated his fastball velocity to 94-95 on his best days and generally pitched between 92-94. He hit 97 for the first time this spring. Scouts project more velocity in the coming years, based on Tago's wiry frame that scouting reports indicate is far from physical maturity.

"I started picking up my velocity and learning how to control it," Tago said. "If I need to, I'll take something off just to hit a spot. Then there are times when you need to be able to hump up and beat a guy."

Scouts believe the depth and quality of Tago's secondary pitches also have improved.

In August, he threw his hard slider at 86-87 mph at the Aflac all-star game - one of the top summer games in California - but had trouble consistently controlling it. He went with a true curveball this spring, throwing it with hard shape and bite at 75-77 mph. Tago also throws a change-up that has deception and sink, which might become his best off-speed pitch as a professional. He envisions himself as a durable, innings-eating workhorse in the coming years.

"I see myself as a mid-to-high 90s guy throwing complete games in the major leagues," Tago said. "I like to get as deep into games as I can and I like to finish as many of them as I can."
Scouts have taken note of Tago's ability to carry his team.

"One thing about him is the ability to execute a pitch deep into a game," the scouting director said.

"That shows both arm strength and competitiveness. He's got a warrior's mentality and you can tell the kids around him really feed off that. That's a quality staff aces tend to have. In our business, it's difficult to find players who care as much about winning as they do about themselves. When you talk to the minor league instructors, the first thing they'll ask scouts is, 'what kind of guys are you sending us?' When you make a substantial investment in a player, you hope you're getting a quality individual as well as a quality player."

When Tago hit 97 earlier this spring, he came back on short rest to pitch seven innings for Dana Hills in a tournament game, reflecting a pitcher who was willing to put his team in front of his draft status.

"I think that just becomes part of you," Tago said. "Some of it comes from facing really good hitters over the summer. It's who can compete the best in terms of execution and mental toughness, but I also see myself as a team leader. I'm just a team guy overall. I'm more concerned with winning than I am about my individual stats or anything like that."

Frank Tago smiled when he heard the comment.

"He takes after his mother like that," he said. "She's very competitive."


 
******

When Tago walked off the field that afternoon, it represented more than the end of another game. It was another father-son moment.

Long before he became a potential first-round pick, Tago discovered the value of his family, who supported him on an unconventional journey. He never had a relationship with his biological father, but he found a father figure in Frank, who sought to instill work ethic, respect, pride and humility into a child he treated as his own.

"He's always been my Dad and we were always a family," Peter Tago said. "My parents never pushed me to play anything other than what I wanted to play. If I needed a new bat or a new glove or new cleats, they always made sure I had what I needed."

It started with Frank being the role model Peter needed.

"He always knew I wasn't his biological Dad, but from like a year after I met him he called me Dad," Frank Tago said. "It was never a big deal in our family. I'm just Pops."

When scouts began asking about Frank Tago about Peter's background, Frank explained his family's story without hesitation. He modestly deflects attention from himself.

"I give all the credit to Peter," Frank said. "He's always so polite. He has consideration for others. Peter knows how to present himself. I tell scouts, 'That's my son. Either you want him or you don't. He's a normal teenage kid who does normal teenage things.'"

Tago may be a normal teen, but put him on the mound and you'll be hard pressed to find a major-league team who wouldn't want to call him their own.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Land of American Football Opportunity

Perhaps only the most ardent of Warriors fans will remember Shannon Stowers.

He was the 24-year-old prop who made his first-grade debut back in 2004, lasted two games before succumbing to injury and was never heard of again.

Until now, that is.

What Warriors diehards might not realise, however, is that Stowers was an American football player first and league hopeful second.

Before he signed with the Warriors, Stowers spent two years at Utah State University on an American football scholarship.

Injury prevented him from turning out for the university side and in the end it forced him home to New Zealand.

But despite the challenges, his passion for the sport never waned.

And now he's back.

Not as a player but as a scout and like those old World War 2 posters with Uncle Sam calling on new recruits, Stowers is on a recruitment drive of his own.

His brief is to find the biggest, best and strongest young kids coming through the rugby and league grades in New Zealand and convince them to try their hand at American football instead.

"What I want to do is basically train guys up to identify if they have the talent and skills to succeed in American football," Stowers, who looks every inch an NFL enforcer, told Sunday News.

"From there, we'll get them playing for the local teams here in New Zealand and get some game footage of them.

"If they are good enough, we'll forward on that footage to some NFL scouts in the States.

"We've already started doing that on a small scale but we are keen to really get some momentum going with it now. I get kids coming up to me all the time and saying they really want to play professional football.

"So this is a chance to help them achieve their dreams.

"If they are under 19, we'll look to get them scholarships in American high schools. If they are older than that, we're talking more about scholarships to American universities and from there they could go on to the NFL."

Stowers isn't alone in his vision of having at least "10 guys in American universities and at least five in American high schools" by next year.

Helping him in his quest to discover would-be NFL superstars are his three business associates who now reside in New Zealand but are no strangers to the college football scene.

Tim Hughley – an American college player who made the practice squad at the Oakland Raiders in the late 1990s, Toa Sagapolu – a former offensive lineman at the University of California – and Jason Vaka – who has played Arena Football (an indoor version of the game) professionally are all working with him.

But it's not just schoolboy rugby and league players Stowers and his well-connected crew are after.
He says NFL franchises are also keen on our professional rugby and league stars such as Warrior Manu Vatuvei, who was linked with the sport a year ago.

Stowers says unfortunately in Vatuvei's case nothing came of a potential deal with the New York Jets in the NFL "for various reasons" but he believes there are "plenty of other undiscovered Vatuveis out there who would have the NFL franchises jumping over themselves to sign.

"We've got the contacts," Stowers said.

"We're pretty much on the hunt for kids who are 19 and under.

"Anyone over that age would go straight into the college system.

"It would be a longshot for anyone other than our professional athletes from the NRL or the Super 14 to go straight to the NFL.

"Those guys already have proven ability and it would be easy enough for many of them to at least get a trial in the NFL.

"Guys such as Manu Vatuvei are the ideal type the scouts are looking for.

"But in saying that, there's plenty of other guys such as Manu Vatuvei out there who just haven't been discovered yet."

While Vatuvei may have slipped through the New York Jets' grasp, Stowers predicts other Kiwi kids will start turning their backs on the traditional sports of rugby and league.

Especially, he says, when you look at the money that players can earn in the NFL.

The minimum contract in the NFL for a rookie is $US325,000 a year but the earnings of starting players are generally in the millions.

In 2009, according to data obtained from USA Today, the median annual salary of players with the New England Patriots – a professional NFL franchise – was $US829,780 a year.

"I think we are going to see kids with the potential to be future All Blacks turn to American football as a career instead," Stowers said.

"Neither rugby union nor rugby league can't compete with American football in terms of salaries.

"Kids are generally interested in the NFL and if they get an opportunity and know what sort of cash they can earn, then they are probably going to go down that path instead of rugby or league.

"When you look at the money up for grabs at these NFL clubs, even making just the practice squad would guarantee more money than the Warriors' best guys are on. And if these guys make the starting team for an NFL club, we are talking about them earning millions."

Stowers and his New Zealand team are not alone in trying to uncover the first genuine NFL superstar from the southern hemisphere.

Over the ditch, Australian company Ozpunt has been identifying potential NFL players for half a decade but director Cameron McGillivray admits his business focuses predominantly on kickers rather than other specialist positions.

Even so, McGillivray says he's aware of interest from NFL franchises in Kiwi boys, particularly those of Pacific Island origin.

"We have been chatting to a few people in New Zealand – player agents and players," McGillivray said.

"We've had great responses from NFL teams wanting to have a look at these New Zealand guys.

"But what it comes down to is whether the New Zealand player is willing to take a risk and get on a plane and head over to the States.

"I recently got back from a trip to the US and one of the NFL bosses of player personnel said to me – `When are some New Zealand boys going to finally come over here?'

"A lot of the teams that I talk to over in the States, they are pretty keen on getting Polynesian players on their books.

"They love their work ethic and they love their competitive drive.

"Historically, they get a lot of players from American Samoa and they do know there is talent in places such as Samoa and New Zealand.

"But because of the distance and the time it takes to scout that area, they don't travel down this way."

That's where scouts such as Stowers come in.

But given his background as a league player – Stowers played for the Warriors' feeder club the Vulcans right up to last year – how does he feel about poaching future Vatuveis from the codes?

"I'm fine with it," he said, laughing.

Got what it takes to play American football as a pro? Stowers can be contacted on shannon@ibrandpeople.co.nz

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Te'o Will Be Focus of Defensive Revival @ Notre Dame

With the installation of the 3-4 defense, Notre Dame will certainly look different from a scheme perspective. It should be noted, however, that an outside linebacker will walk up to the line quite often next season to create a four-man front — making it look less like a 3-4 and more like a traditional 4-3 scheme.

The pressing question is will the Irish have enough playmakers on that side of the ball? Or, more simply, will it be able to stop the run and the pass more consistently?

Manti Te'o, one of the most highly recruited defensive players in the country in 2009, is the face of the new scheme. The 6-2, 250-pounder will man the middle linebacker spot after playing on the outside in space during his freshman campaign. Te'o, who finished with eight tackles and an interception on Saturday, played inside of a 3-4 defense while in high school, so the familiarity can only bode well for the Irish. And despite making 63 tackles in a solid first season in South Bend, Te’o is driven to become a more consistent defender. All expectations are that Te'o takes a huge step in his second season.

He’s confident in his progress under the new system, as is Kelly.

"He is, in his own mind, and our coaches and myself, living up to maybe some of the expectations that everybody had coming in as one of the top, premier high school players in the country," Kelly said. "He can be a great player. He's got a chance, and he's showing some signs of that. His recognition, his leadership, it's exciting to watch him grow. He's really growing quickly in a short period of time."

What Te'o did was accept Kelly's challenge, not fight it. And both have benefitted.

"Personally, I'm getting more comfortable as days go by," Te'o said. "I still have a lot to work on, of course, but I'm getting more comfortable and making plays in this defensive scheme."

"I think the thing that I like about him the most is - he's a mike linebacker that can stay on the field," Kelly said. "He's not a guy that you take off the field on third down. He's really good in space."

That was evident in Saturday's Blue-Gold Game, with an interception - just the first glimpse of the player Te'o wants to be this fall.

"I expect a lot from myself," he said. "And to be a leader on my team, and to help motivate my team, and just be the best defense we can be as a whole."


While Te’o garners the most individual attention, his fellow defenders will need to step up their performance, as well, after the Irish surrendered 397.8 yards per game — the worst defensive performance in school history.

It makes one wonder whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that most of the core players from last year return next season.

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Miami Dolphins' Koa Misi Has No Identity Crisis

Since the moment Miami devoted a second-round pick to him on April 23, rookie linebacker Koa Misi almost immediately was linked to one of the most popular and talented defensive players in Dolphins history.

Fair or not, this was the player charged with the task of replacing Jason Taylor as the team's outside linebacker -- an assumption based purely on the position he plays, the early pick used to land him and the timing of his arrival.

But before anyone gets too caught up in such comparisons, perhaps it is time to first take a lesson from Misi himself. Hop into his mellow mind for a few moments and you will realize such stresses almost seem silly.

``I'm just my own guy,'' Misi said, not a drop of irritability in his voice. ``Growing up, I never really watched football. I never really watched any sports. I still don't. I just go out there and play.''

As he said Sunday, while wearing the same jersey number as ousted defensive captain Joey Porter, it's almost as if he also doesn't realize why it's ironic that a quiet, mild-mannered linebacker has inherited No. 55.
Then, it becomes clear:

``Did you ever watch the guy play who wore that number before you?'' Misi was asked.


Replied Misi: ``No, not really,'' followed by a polite shrug.

If you're still missing the point, it's simple. The Dolphins' devotion to the future and their dismissal of the past often has been viewed as harsh and cold. But Misi, with his ferocity on the field and his placidness away from it, might be the ideal remedy.

On the field, Misi will have every chance to fill the vacancy as the team's starting strong-side linebacker, which opened up by Taylor's departure. But it might not be in the natural sense many assume.

STRONG COVERAGE SKILLS

Miami particularly was impressed with Misi's coverage skills when the team coached against him in the Senior Bowl. His ability to be so disruptive as a coverage linebacker is rare, and his desire to devote himself to such responsibilities is even more rare.

Porter and Taylor often dreaded playing in coverage, instead wishing to stick to their primary duties as sackmasters. Although Misi will see his share of edge rushing, the pressure on the quarterback will mainly come from different areas.

``This kid was out in one-on-one drills, creating interceptions at the Senior Bowl, those type of things,'' coach Tony Sparano said. ``I liked what he did with his movement, his range and his coverage skills.''

So whereas Misi will play the same position as Taylor, his skill set offers yet another reason why comparisons to one of the NFL's best all-time pass rushers are not all that relevant.

Don't mistake Misi's attitude toward Taylor and Porter as disrespectful, either. You get a sense that's not the case just from hearing him speak. He tried to make that clear on the first day of rookie minicamp, which concluded Sunday.

``I do look up to those guys [Porter and Taylor],'' Misi said. ``Those guys are good players, and they have earned their spots in the NFL, and that's something that I want to do. Hopefully, I can get to where they were one day.''

So, sure, Misi does accept some of the expectations placed on him as a result of the timing of his arrival. But it's in the same type of way, with the same type of refreshing reasons, that he cites Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis as his idol.

``I've seen him in some magazines, looking all pumped up and pumping everybody else up,'' Misi said of Lewis. ``I liked that.''

FORMATIVE YEARS

From an early age, Misi found himself sitting in front of a TV watching football, because his father, former Hawaii offensive lineman Sione Misi, wanted him to pick up on the game. At first, it didn't seem to work.

``My dad always used to make me watch,'' Misi said. ``He'd sit me down and make me look at what each guy was doing. I just got sick of it. It made me not want to watch it anymore. I just couldn't get into it.''

Instead, it wasn't until high school when he started to play the game and develop a deep passion for it. Then, Misi said, he only would watch football to pick up on the tendencies of other players.

To this day, he has trouble getting engulfed by football as a spectator, a quality that has allowed him to maintain his laid-back approach to the task he's about to face. Fortunately for the Dolphins, his passion to play the game has a far different tone to it.

``In general, I'm a little low-key,'' Misi said. ``Not too hyper. When I get on the football field, it changes. The aggression comes out. I'm ready to go when I play football. I'm ready to hit somebody.''

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Late Start to Football Doesn't Deter Evans

Kentucky senior defensive end DeQuin Evans counts his blessings every day.

He’s thankful for having made it out alive of one of the most dangerous housing projects in Compton, Calif.

He’s thankful that he got a chance to play football in the first place. Remarkably, this will be only his fourth full season of organized football.


Most of all, he’s thankful he gets one last shot to continue paying back Kentucky for believing in him enough a year and a half ago to give him a scholarship out of Los Angeles’ Harbor College.

It all flashed before his eyes, though, early during spring practice this year. He rolled his knee up in practice, and it didn’t look pretty at the time.

As it turned out, it was only a mild sprain, and Evans was back in a few days.

“I learned a long time ago to appreciate everything I have,” Evans said. “I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to this senior season.”

Evans led the Wildcats in sacks (6) and tackles for loss (12.5) last season. Still raw as a football player, he got by on sheer athletic ability and heart much of the time.

He has no doubt that he’ll be a more complete football player in 2010.

“I’ve never worked this hard in my life,” Evans said. “I’m hoping and praying all my ability shows on Saturdays, all the small technical stuff I’ve been working on and all this film I’ve been watching.

“I also have to be a leader for this team, which will lead me to being a better player. That’s what keeps me coming in at 5:30 in the morning, keeping my inner drive going every day and never being satisfied with nothing.”

The 6-3, 257-pound Evans is one of the better stories in the SEC.

He was raised by a single mother, along with three younger sisters, in the Park Village projects in Compton. His grandfather, Tavita Maefau, did his best to keep Evans in sports as a youngster, but Maefau died when Evans was only 12.

“That’s a big reason I never got into football when I was a kid. He kept me involved, but I didn’t even play high school ball,” Evans said. “In my world, you were just trying to make it day by day. It was tough. Everything that people see on TV that happens in Compton ... that stuff is for real.

“I’ve got a lot of friends who are in wheelchairs now and friends who’ve been shot and didn’t even gang-bang or anything. A lot of times, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had a friend going to Nevada on full basketball ride, and he got shot one night after a game and was paralyzed from the waist down.”

Evans acquired a taste for football through his cousin, Hershel Dennis, who played running back at USC.

“He took me under his wing and said to come live with him when he was living off campus at USC, and I would be around LenDale White, Reggie Bush and Dominique Byrd," Evans said. "I was like, ‘This is tight,’ and they all wanted to know why I didn’t play football.”

Evans started wondering the same thing himself and wound up hooking up with a buddy of his who was playing junior college ball at Harbor College.

“I went and met the coach, and he told me he would love to have me on the team, that I just had to be ready to put in the work,” Evans recalled. “So I moved back in with my mom, who was living in Long Beach then, and she had this huge hill in the back of her house. I used to always see those clips of Walter Payton running those hills on ESPN Classic.

“I lost about 20 pounds running that hill, did my pushups and was hungry to get a chance. Anything that would keep me busy and out of trouble, that’s what I wanted to do. I went out there for the first practices and was coming in first in all the sprints.

“It was like a snowball going downhill after that. The game just grew on me.”

First-year Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said Evans’ best football is clearly in front of him.

“The light was starting to come on at the end of the year last year when he was playing his best football,” Phillips said. “He was playing really well at the first part of this spring when he hurt himself and missed some practices.

“We put a lot on him as far as being a leader. We have some leaders on offense in Randall Cobb, Mike Hartline, Stuart Hines, Derrick Locke. The thing we have to start doing his giving more people leadership roles on defense, and DeQuin is one of those guys. He’s always been a leader in the way he plays, because he’s a high-motor guy. Now, he’s got to be a leader with how he speaks when he’s in front of our team and off the field.

"He’s taken ownership with that, and we think this will be a huge year for him.”

Full Article

E.J. Reid Signs With St. Louis Rams

Former Utah State football player E.J. Reid has signed a free agent contract with the St. Louis Rams after participating in their rookie minicamp over the weekend.


Reid, a 6-2, 320-pound defensive tackle from Kahuku, Hawaii, played at Utah State from 2004-06.  After being away from football for two years, Reid went to the University of Mary in Bismark, N.D., to finish his eligibility, earning all-Northern Sun accolades in 2009 with the Marauders. After playing defensive end for Mary, Reid is expected to play defensive tackle for the Rams.  Reid is expected to next participate in the Rams organized team activities (OTAs) scheduled for May 18.

With St. Louis, Reid will re-unite with former Utah State assistant coach Tom McMahon, currently the Rams special teams coordinator.  McMahon spent 11 seasons with the Aggies, including serving as Reid’s position coach in 2004-05.

McMahon spent 11 total years at Utah State, including eight as a full-time assistant.  Joining the USU staff as a graduate assistant in 1995, coaching defensive ends, McMahon was promoted to full time assistant, coaching linebackers and special teams from 1998-2000 before being named defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator from 2001-05.  McMahon left Utah State in 2005 to join the University of Louisville staff.  After coaching on the Louisville staff for one season, McMahon was with the Atlanta Falcons as assistant special teams coach from 2007-08 before joining the Rams.

McMahon’s nephew, Mike McMahon, is currently the defensive coordinator at University of Mary and also a former USU assistant coach, serving as defensive graduate assistant from 2006-07.  Mike McMahon sent his uncle a tape of Reid, prompting the Rams’ interest in the defensive lineman.

Last season at Mary, Reid posted 31 tackles (13 solo, 18 assists) and was second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and ranking third with two sacks, and added one interception.  Reid earned second-team all-NSIC North honors.

At Utah State, Reid made 54 career tackles with 29 in 2006 after posting 25 stops in 2005.  Reid made 14 career starts in 22 games as a defensive lineman, after switching from offensive lineman as a freshman in 2004, starting in four games, two at right tackle and two at right guard.  He posted 6.5 tackles for loss, including one sack, one fumble recovery and one blocked kick.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Tonga Talks About Raiders Camp


Manase Tonga made a nice impression this past weekend at the Oakland Raiders mini-camp. In fact, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report earlier this week, the former BYU Cougar looks to have a good shot at not only making the team, but starting at fullback for Al Davis’ squad.

“I definitely got the impression that the spot is wide open,” Manase told Deep Shades of Blue. “That was the thought of the two veterans that were at the camp as well.”

Tonga, a rookie free agent, may have the upper hand on both veterans Luke Lawton and Marcel Reese.

Lawton is currently serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy, while Reese is a converted wide receiver who saw action in just two games last season. Another veteran fullback prospect, Oren O’Neal, was recently released by the Raiders. Chase Moline, another rookie free agent fullback from UCLA, was also in Oakland’s camp last week.

Tonga says that it was a bit surreal during the first day of camp as he donned the Raider uniform for the first time.

“The first day I was getting taped up next to Darren McFadden, then later on I was out there catching passes from Jason Campbell. After the first day though it was just playing football, I wasn’t really paying attention to who was out there on the field with me.  I was really impressed with the players at camp, how humble they were and how ready they were to go to work. It kind of shocked me. I was expecting to see a lot of ego but it wasn’t like that at all.”

Prior to the draft last month, Oakland was one of the teams that showed interest in Manase, who grew up in nearby San Mateo and starred at Aragon High School.

“So far it’s worked out,” Tonga said. “It’s a good place, a good situation and it’s close to home. Nothing is guaranteed at this point though. I still have to work for it.”

Tonga said he is excited that his dream of playing in the NFL is within reach, and that he is thankful for the chance to wear the silver and black colors of the one of the most storied franchises in sports. “It’s just an honor. I’m privileged to put on the colors of some of the greatest players to play to the game. This organization has given me the opportunity to live out my dream. It’s just an honor.”

As Tonga arrived at camp he was able to reconnect with a couple of friends, a fact that made last weekend a little easier for the rookie. Former Cougars David Nixon and Todd Watkins are both Raiders, and gave Manase some insight and advise about how to make it in the NFL. “It was good to get reacquainted with both David and Todd and spend some time with them. They showed me the ropes and stressed that it’s a business now. They told me to approach it with a business mindset, to work hard and give the coaches a reason to keep me around and not cut me.”

Tonga is continuing to work out and work on aspects of his game that Raider coaches want to see him develop further. His quest to make the NFL resumes May 18 at the next Raider mini-camp.

Full Article

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Shawn Lauvao Brings Power to Browns ‎

Shawn Lauvao has never pulled a van, lifted a giant tire, flipped a log or done any of the other bizarre and entertain­ing events that make up the world’s strongest man competitions.

But the newest Browns offensive line­man, and 2005 Hawaii Strongest Teen, is open to the possibility.

“Maybe in the future,” he said over the weekend at Browns rookie minicamp. “It’s definitely a big hobby of mine. I enjoy lift­ing weights. I’m kind of strong.”

Lauvao was drafted in the third round at No. 92 overall.

The pick came just seven selec­tions after that of Texas quarter­back Colt McCoy, so Lauvao has been largely an afterthought.

The afterthought has a much better chance of contributing this season.

Lauvao, who finished his Ari­zona State career with 33 straight starts, played left tackle as a sen­ior, but at 6-foot-2, 315 pounds projects as an NFL guard. Vet­eran Floyd Womack is penciled in as the starter at right guard, but Lauvao could immediately push him for playing time.

“The biggest thing is I want to make the team and help the team any way possible,” said Lauvao, who grew up in Hawaii and whose parents live in West­ern Samoa. “Whatever the coaches see fit, I’m more than willing to do.”

If Lauvao gets on the field, his strength will be a significant factor. He can bench press 500 pounds, squat 700 and clean 350. He benched 225 pounds an impressive 33 times at the combine, and was disap­pointed he didn’t do more.

“Shawn came in strong, had a tremendous work ethic the entire time he was here and got much stronger,” Arizona State strength coach Ben Hilgart said by phone. “What’s more impressive is that pound for pound he’s very good. He han­dles his body weight very well.” Hilgart said Lauvao’s “relative strength” was obvious when the linemen did chin-ups.

While plenty of 300-pounders struggle to do one, Lauvao ups the ante and doesn’t disap­point.

“We’ve got chains we use that weigh about 20 pounds apiece,” Hilgart said. “He’ll drape three of those around his back, kinda Mad Max style. It turns him into 375 pounds, 60 of which is dead weight, and he’ll bang out 10 chin-ups.”

If strength were enough to make a good NFL player, the behemoths from the strong man competition — Magnus and Andrus — would be raking in millions. But that strength must be converted to opera­tional power. “There’s a lot of guys who can lift a lot of weight, who are strong, but not very athletic,” Lauvao said. “The biggest thing is playing with better leverage, better knee bend, dropping your hips more, having better reaction, as opposed to trying to run and smash people.
You’ve got to do it in a more controlled manner.”

Hilgart’s seen Lauvao do that on the field, and he also saw it at the scouting combine when Lauvao posted the best time of any offensive lineman in the short shuttle drill.

“It’s a great indicator of how a guy can change direction, burst off the line and drop his hips,” Hilgart said. “It shows versatility. He’s an athletic and strong kid. He’s not just a big, slow, strong kid.

“I’ve seen it in games and practices. When he gets hold of you, it’s lights out. I’ve seen him lock ’em out with one arm and just stone that person.

That’s an application of where strength is translating to the football field.”

Lauvao earned his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, specializing in educa­tion and sociology. He said he’s six to nine units from getting his master’s and would like to use the degrees to go into coaching.

The Browns targeted charac­ter and toughness in the draft, and Lauvao appears to bring both. As a senior, he was voted captain by his teammates and won the Hard Hat award, given to the MVP of strength training. “It’s not about the strongest person, it’s who’s working the hardest, doing the little things right and motivating people in the weight room,” Hilgart said.

“He just happened to also be our strongest guy.

“He’s a great football player, a hard worker and a great per­son. All that stuff’s legit. All that stuff’s authentic.”

The coaching staff worked Lauvao at both guard spots during rookie minicamp, and he said they want him to mas­ter guard before expanding his repertoire.

“He’s tough, he’s physical,” coach Eric Mangini said. “One of the things that you like about watching offensive line­men or something that always jumps off the screen to me is guys that clean the pocket.
Which means when they are not blocking somebody, they go and help somebody else out, and it’s usually one of those hits that defensive line­men remember.

“There were quite a few of those with him. You appreciate that.”

Lauvao had a simple expla­nation for what Mangini spot­ted on film.

“I like to knock heads,” he said. “If I don’t have anything to do, I’m going to go see if I can smash somebody else.”

Full Article

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

Full Article

Friday, May 7, 2010

Former Bulldog Scores NFL Contract

In a world where most players enter college football programs with years of Pop Warner and high school playing experience, Raymond Emanuel Hisatake stands out.

Hisatake, 23, a former CSM Bulldog defensive lineman, signed a three-year free agent contract with the Carolina Panthers on April 24, and will be suiting up in a No. 62 Panthers uniform.

He received a $10,000 signing bonus and will have a first year salary of $320,000.

"It's a storybook tale," said his former CSM head coach Larry Owens.

"Ray having never played any football at high school to have an opportunity to play professional football and get paid for it, I am really excited for him. We at CSM love him a lot and are very happy for him and his family." he said.

Hisatake never played a football game before he came to CSM, said Owens.

When he first came for tryouts, he wasn't sure what the pads were and how to put them on.

"Ray was easy to coach," said Owens. "He would do everything you tell him to and he worked very hard and has come a long way."

"I am very thankful and very blessed," said Hisatake. "I gave my best and am happy that I will be able to represent CSM and the coaches."

Hisatake graduated from Westmoor High in Daly City, a school that did not have a football program, in 2004 and enrolled at CSM with the intention of joining the track-and-field program.

"It was very hard to get a full-ride scholarship to college through track-and-field," said Hisatake. "I spoke to a few colleges, and I found out that I was good but not good enough (to get a scholarship)."

Still, that did not stop Hisatake from winning the 2006 Coast Conference Track & Field Championship in discus throwing.

"I thought that since CSM had a football team, I might as well try out and hope to get into a Division III college football program," said Hisatake.

Instead, after greyshirting in 2004 and playing as a defensive lineman in 2005 and 2006, Histake won a scholarship to a Division I football program at the University of Hawaii.

At UH, he switched to playing in the offensive positions of left tackle, right guard and left guard.

"When I first saw and met Ray, we were in spring football and he was working out with the track team," said CSM Defensive Line Coach David Heck. "6'4 and 330 pounds does not come around too often. I remember his first play in his first game where he got driven down the field 15 yards and could not get off the block. Now he is the one driving people 15 yards down the field."

After graduating from UH on Dec. 20, 2009 with a bachelor degree in sociology, Hisatake spent three months in Arizona preparing for his Pro Day on April 1.

"I did well enough in the individual drills and managed to impress the Chicago Bear and Carolina Panther scouts," said Hisatake. "The Carolina Panthers gave me a call after the draft offering me a contract."

"Coach Heck was one of the first people outside of my family that I called," Hisatake said. "I consider Coach Heck my family and I still keep in touch with Coach O (Owens), (CSM Defensive Coordinator) Coach Tulloch and my Bulldog teammates; I will never forget the bonds of friendship I made with them."

"I felt so proud and thankful about Ray signing a pro contract; it couldn't have happened to a nicer kid," said Heck. "Coming from where he came from and never playing football to signing a pro contract is the reason I coach; just for him to have the opportunity to be in this position is a great thing. I think this is what junior college football is all about. Giving opportunities to young men that they didn't have coming out of high school."

"I'm happy for Ray," said Bulldog teammate Tevita Halaholo. "He's an athlete. I remember him doing perfect splits in the locker room; biggest dude I've ever seen do the splits. He will do a great job in the NFL."

"The coaches at CSM, they helped me a lot," said Hisatake. "Coach Owens gave me an opportunity to play despite me not having any football experience. I am proud to be part of a great football program at CSM which also helped me get ahead academically; I was able to graduate early from CSM with an AA majoring in liberal arts. Due to the program, I am the first in my family to graduate with a college degree."

"There are three things that I am really happy for him about- first that he got a scholarship to University of Hawaii, then when he got his bachelor's degree there, and now when he gets a shot at playing football professionally," said Owens.

"Ray represents what we all mean when we speak of being a Bulldog," said CSM Football Head Coach Bret Pollack. "He exemplifies our culture and fighting spirit of 'Play Hard, Never Quit' which rings true for all Bulldogs in the classroom, in the weight room, on the field, and in life. Ray continues to exemplify that culture and at the same time provide motivation for current and future CSM students and athletes."

Full Article

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pac-10 Spring Breakout Players

Every spring, a handful of players make names for themselves. Here are some Poly's making names for themselves this spring in the Pac-10.

Arizona


The sophomore can play fullback, tailback or tight end. At 6-foot-2, 258 pounds, he packs a punch. “He’s very physical,” Littrell said. “That’s one of the things we had to work on last year when he first got here, being more physical. He’s really taken on that role and he’s taking the coaching well.” Tutogi has electrified the mood of the offense — as well as fans during the spring game.

DT Sione Tuihalamaka

Not a lot has been written about the redshirt freshman, but he had a great spring and will enter fall camp as the starter at defensive tackle. Tuihalamaka has put on a ton of muscle since arriving in Tucson and at the very least will be in the mix for reps on the interior defensive line. His move up the depth chart "pleasantly surprised" Kish, but the hulking defensive tackle has the size and ability to play right away. The younger brother of defensive end Apaiata Tuihalamaka and cousin of former UA linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka impressed coaches with his quick hands and footwork.

California

 
Cal running back Isi Sofele impressed during Saturday's scrimmage by rushing for 51 yards on eight carries.  He flashed his explosiveness with a long punt return for a touchdown but it was called back by a penalty. The diminutive sophomore (5-foot-7) is still in the running for the backup running back spot for the Bears.  He played in all 13 games last year and had 12 carries for 82 yards and one touchdown.  While he isn't the big name of some of the others in the running, he might just edge them out for the reps behind Shane Vereen.

Stanford


The 6-foot-8, 244-pound redshirt freshman showed good speed and good hands during the spring, and he is difficult to cover. Expect his playing time to increase as the 2010 season wears on." Toilolo has really separated himself from the rest," coach Harbaugh said.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Steelers' Troy Polamalu Was Concerned Knee Injury in 2009 Was Career-Threatening

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said he was concerned at points last season that the knee injury that limited him to five games in 2009 was potentially career-threatening.

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, center, suffered a knee injury in win against the Titans.
Polamalu told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that doctors warned him if he played through the pain of a torn ligament in his left knee, he was risking the end of his career.
Said Polamalu:
"Yes, it was a concern. The hardest thing was if I would have injured it again, the doctor was saying that it will be a career-ending injury, most likely. I had to face that."
Polamalu was hurt in the season opener and missed the next four games. He returned for four games, but another injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season (though he remained hopeful in December that he might play by the end of the year).

The Steelers safety began wearing a brace reluctantly because of the seriousness of the injury. After eschewing surgery in favor of rehab, he practiced with teammates at the team's minicamp last weekend.

What's his prognosis?

"Right now, I feel fine," Polamalu told the Tribune Review. "(But) I don't know what happens when we start tackling."

Full Article

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Stanley Havili Torches Trojan Defense

USC fullback Stanley Havili had five catches for 129  yards and three touchdowns in Saturday's spring game.

Havili is the best receiving fullback in the nation.  He has 84 catches for 894 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career.  Matt Barkley has already stated an importance in checking the ball down and Havili figures to benefit from that strategy.  He can be a valuable option in Pac 10 leagues when looking for a bye week fill-in.

Full Article

Monday, May 3, 2010

49ers Mike Iupati Embraces Advice From Jerry Kramer


Mike Iupati could be the greatest offensive lineman from Idaho since Jerry Kramer, a fact not lost on Kramer himself. He was watching his alma mater one day when he saw a behemoth pull from his guard position, race downfield and smash a helpless defender.

The play tugged at Kramer's heartstrings. He made his name leading the Packers sweep for a coach named Vince Lombardi. So when Kramer saw Iupati moving with the size of a grizzly and the speed of a gazelle, he scrambled for his program.
To his amazement, he found this: 6-foot-5, 331 pounds.

"He can move for a big sucker," Kramer, 74, said. "I haven't seen a guy pull like that in a long time."

The 49ers agreed with that assessment, which is why they took Iupati with the No. 17 pick in the NFL draft. Conventional wisdom says you don't take an offensive guard that high, but the 49ers concluded that conventional wisdom never got a load of Iupati.

"This guy has a chance to be special," director of player personnel Trent Baalke said.

Iupati (pronounced YOU-pah-tee) made his 49ers debut this weekend during a three-day rookie minicamp.

For an advanced scouting report, the Mercury News called Kramer, the five-time All-Pro, five-time NFL champion, two-time Super Bowl winner and right guard once rated by the NFL Network as the best player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As it turns out, Kramer was well-acquainted with Iupati. They met in December before the Humanitarian Bowl. It was an amiable chat between the Idaho greats — the spud studs — and, in Kramer's words, "I got a chance to lay a piece of wisdom on his (backside)."
Kramer's message was brief. He told Iupati to hold on tight — to his money and to his memories — because the NFL ride will be a whirlwind. Iupati took the message to heart.

"Meeting him was an inspiration," he said after practice last week. "Jerry Kramer was such a great player, and he came from Idaho like me. It gave me a lot of motivation."

Kramer later gave Iupati an autographed copy of his best-selling book, "Instant Replay," with an inscription that read: "Every play, every down, every series, every meeting — like it's your last."

It's not an accident that those lines have echoes of Lombardi. Kramer learned his craft from the famously demanding coach. Lombardi believed that even a simple running play would be unstoppable as long as his offensive linemen executed properly.

The key for Iupati, Kramer said, will be to understand that type of mental discipline.

"He's got great physical skills, and I think he's on his way to getting a little stronger," Kramer said. "The big question for him is the mind. "... At the college level, he might run into one or two players a year that give him a challenge. In the NFL, he's going to run into that guy every week. He has to be ready for guys that have the speed, the strength and the agility."

Plenty of Idaho players have made the NFL since Kramer was drafted in 1958, including Mark Schlereth, a 10th-round pick in '89 who went on to make two Pro Bowls.

But Iupati is the rare Vandal to draw a national spotlight. He was a finalist for the Outland Trophy as college football's best interior lineman. And when the 49ers called his name, Iupati joined running back Ray McDonald (1967) as the only first-round picks from the school.

"It's hard to get much attention in Idaho," said Kramer, who lives in Boise. "As far as the media and the rest of the world is concerned, it's the land that time forgot."

That's why Kramer is rooting for Iupati. And it's also why he has some advice.
"There were a couple things I didn't get to tell him when we met, so we'll tell him in this article," Kramer said.

So gather 'round and listen to the man who used to pave the way for the likes of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. Kramer also helped clear the path for quarterback Bart Starr to score the winning touchdown in the 1967 championship game victory over the Cowboys.

Tip No. 1: When Iupati gets to the second level of the defense, he needs to recognize that there are two tactics available to a defensive back looking to upend him. One is for the defender to go in low — "submarine style," Kramer called it — and wipe out Iupati's legs. The other tactic is for the defender to back off and play the angles.

"So what I used to do was watch the guy's helmet. If he dropped down low, I would drop down to meet him, "Kramer said. "A defensive back won't stand up to a hit like that, and they generally don't like that too much. In the future, they'll back off."

Tip No. 2: If the defensive back tries to play the angles, Kramer said, "Just run the hell over him. Maybe give him a forearm, but stay on your feet and keep running." Even if no contact is made, a hard-charging blocker will make a defensive back commit to an angle, "and once that happens, a smart back is going to recognize that right away and he'll get the step he needs."

Kramer merrily recalled the day he nailed four Chicago Bears defensive players on a single play. Was Lombardi upset that he didn't wipe out five?
"Probably," Kramer said.

Iupati, who turns 23 on May 12, said he is ready for his chance to follow suit. There is no hitting in this rookie minicamp, but he still managed to make an impression with his size and athleticism. He is also eager to carry on Kramer's legacy.

Every play, every down, every series, every meeting — like it's your last.
"I come off the ball fast and physical," Iupati said. "I try to attack my opponents."

Full Article

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Kaluka Maiava Proving Doubters Wrong

One rookie that never got the kind of credit he deserves is linebacker Kaluka Maiava.  For a guy that was selected in the fourth round, with lingering doubts about his size, Kaluka made an impact in his rookie season.  He played in every single game for the Browns.  He had 45 tackles, 2.5 sacks (for 6 lost yards) and 2 forced fumbles.  And he really rose to the occasion against division rivals – he had 5 solo tackles againat the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 5, 6 solo tackles against the Baltimore Ravens in week 10, and another 3 solo tackles against Pittsburgh in week 14.

Equally important, the coaches and his defensive teammates speak highly of Maiava.  He is a smart player who approaches his job in a business-like, no-nonsense manner.  He plays much tougher than he appears.  The competitiveness at USC prepared him well.

It is always a pleasure to land a player beyond the third round of the Draft who makes an immediate impact and who has the potential to become one of the better players at his position on the defense.  Kaluka fits that bill.

Full Article

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Koa Misi Memories Gush From Viking Teammates & Coaches

We are going back now, going back six, seven years, when Koa Misi wasn’t a second-round NFL draft choice, when he was a high school football player. We are going back in time for glimpses of that talent which made Misi the 40th pick in the recent draft, images that will make you wish you were there to see him. Like the pinwheel moment.

About five football players, Misi among them, were in the Montgomery weight room, horsing around. As what happens sometimes when teenage testosterone rubs up against another kid who has a strong case of it, things got a little rough.

“Koa sent four kids flying out of the weight room, one right after another, fast, like a pinwheel was turning, spitting them out,” said Jason Franci, Montgomery’s head coach.
With ease, by the way. Franci didn’t hear any grunting from Misi, only from the teammates who landed.

“With ease”, now that’s the phrase I found to be used most commonly about Misi by his ex-teammates and ex-coaches at Montgomery. “With ease.” It wasn’t just what Misi did that was superior, it was how he did it. He did it with ease.

“After a game,” said Todd Vehmeyer, Montgomery’s defensive coordinator, “I’m standing with my back to the locker room door. And remember, I weigh 260 pounds. I’m not small. Koa comes up behind me, picks me up and gives me a bear hug that knocks the wind out of me. Koa? He’s not even breathing hard. You probably heard of someone being ‘country strong’. Well, Koa is island strong.”

Misi, of Tongan descent, created memories of his strength not by walking around and flexing his biceps. To the contrary, he was, still is, modest by nature. Oh yes, those memories came naturally.

“His dad, Sione, was in the tree business,” said Frank Scalercio, Montgomery’s assistant coach, “and one day I was out with Koa and Sione helping them. The back of the end of the truck got stuck in the mud. Koa and Sione lifted up the back end of the truck so I could slide a piece of wood underneath for traction. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

The truly gifted athlete — this is true of any sport but especially in football — forms the appearance of being twice as big, twice as fast, twice as strong. His very presence creates that enlarged bubble of awe around him.

It happened on the football fields of Sonoma County. The opposition was aware of Misi. Offenses constantly tracked him when he played defensive end. There would be times when a running back or a receiver or a quarterback would see Misi coming.

“And they would freeze, like a deer in the headlights,” Scalercio said. “It might be only for a second but it would be a mistake. Koa won’t slow down. He would just go through you.”
The results would be predictable because the results would be painful.

“On two consecutive plays against Casa,” said Jeremy Avilla, then a Montgomery safety, “Koa knocked players out of the game. One had a broken arm and missed most of the season.”

Nearly every person I interviewed about Misi remembered at least one game in which a player had to leave after a Misi tackle. He did it not to cripple but just to answer that need he had inside him — to play hard and fast on every play. Misi was developing a legend of awe, borne not only of what he did on the field but what he did off it.

Franci has a wooden platform. It’s three-feet high, two-feet wide. At the beginning of each season Franci asks his players to jump on it. He wants to see athletic ability.

“Each season I have four of five players who can land on the platform,” Franci said. “Koa is the only player I ever coached who jumped OVER it.”

Jumping is an important skill not just for a basketball player. It reveals flexibility, or a lack of it.

“Koa’s dad had this monster truck, with its flatbed maybe four feet off the ground,” Scalercio said. 

“We had to go somewhere one day and his dad said, ‘Koa, get in the back.’ Because the tailgate was so high, people hoisted themselves up. Koa? He jumped from a standing position and landed in the back. Like it was no big deal. Like he did it all the time. He looked like a gazelle. I mean it. And what I remember most, his landing was soft. I just shook my head. Couldn’t believe it.”

So he was a teenager, 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, island strong, a gazelle-type leaper, lover of contact. What else?

“Koa was so quick,” said Marcus Ezeff, a Montgomery teammate, now trying out with the New York Jets, “he’d catch people without them seeing him, and he’d cream them. He did it to this one kid at Casa and the kid just laid there the longest time. It was the kind of speed you see in college. I was always happy I never was on the opposite line of scrimmage.”

So what did Misi lack? Nothing.

“Koa reminded me a lot of Jerry Robinson,” Franci said of the ex-Cardinal Newman star who played 13 years in the NFL.

“Sure, yeah, we’d like to say the coaches made Koa a great player,” Vehmeyer said. “But that’s not true. Not with Koa. He was there already. And he was a great teammate.”

Misi never big-timed his high school buddies when he went to Utah or when the Dolphins drafted him last week. Fact is, he concealed his talent, his skills. He was, and is, the textbook definition of humble.

“That’s why when Koa was drafted,” Ezeff said, “it felt like I was drafted, too. We all root for Koa.”
Vehmeyer has a special rooting interest in Misi.

“I meet with my kids at the beginning of the year,” Vehmeyer said, “and I tell them, ‘You’re not going to play in the NFL but if by some chance you do, I want season tickets.’ I reminded Koa of that this week and all Koa said, ‘Coach, I don’t remember you saying that.’”

Vehmeyer laughed when he told the story. He doesn’t need the tickets. In fact, he could even say that Misi won’t show him anything in the NFL that he hasn’t seen already. Catch someone from behind like the guy was standing still? Drive through a ball carrier like he’s cotton candy? Run sideline-to-sideline like an obsessed border patrolman?

Yep, Vehmeyer’s been there. Seen that. Applauded. Gawked. Once, Koa Misi was a man among boys. Like Vehmeyer or Franci or Ezeff would say, you should have been there. A 225-pound blur of a hammer isn’t seen in these parts all that often.