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Hawaii's offensive line continues 'growing' up

By Dave Reardon

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:29 a.m. HST, Apr 04, 2011



Kaniela Tuipulotu wincing in pain, pulling off his pads, receiving treatment.

Vaughn Meatoga limping around the field, also out of the action.

Relax, University of Hawaii football fans, no one's trying to scare you. Neither of the stellar starting defensive tackles is seriously injured or expected to be out of spring practice for long.

Now, if you see something like this in five or six months on a Saturday night at Aloha Stadium, be very concerned. But the other day at the quarry, it was actually a good sign for the Warriors — and Tuipulotu and Meatoga are experienced enough to realize that, despite their own temporary physical discomfort.

In recent seasons, especially, it's been common for the defensive line to wear out its offensive counterparts in camp skirmishes. But that wasn't the case at a high-tempo, full-pads workout Saturday. The Warriors' next generation of pass protectors threw their weight around.

"They're real good, real quick and big," said Tuipulotu, who came out as a precaution with a sore lower back. "They're coming together as one. Firing off the line. It's making all of us better.

"A lot of the young O-line guys didn't get a lot of reps last year. But they're in there all the time now, and you can see the improvement."

The last couple of years of offensive line recruits have been touted as guys with ranginess and quickness. Meatoga said it's true, and as individual athletes they compare well with the players he went up against in practice in 2007 as a redshirting freshman.

"Steiny (2007 right tackle Keoni Steinhoff) was about 6-3; other than that it was a short offensive line. Now there's a Brett Leonard, who goes 6-4 and runs the 40 in 5.0. The other guys are like that, too, they're tall and they move well. They're all basketball players, all athletic."

THREE OF the players penciled in as starters are seniors, but another is a sophomore who is almost as long as his name, 6-foot-4, 310-pound Chauncy Winchester-Makainai.

You also hear the names Sean Shigematsu (6-4, 270), David Lefotu (6-3, 305) and Jordan Loeffler (6-5, 300) a lot. They're all redshirt freshmen.

"I see him competing" at right tackle, offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich said, when asked about Shigematsu.

And Lefotu is pushing Winchester-Makainai at the spot next to him. "He'd love to maul you. Mauling is his enjoyment," Rolovich said of Lefotu. "You don't want to call him a Vince Manuwai yet, but ..."

Loeffler is also getting a long look.

IF YOU FOLLOW this team at all, you've noticed that for the fourth year in a row the offensive line is lacking in returning starters. It seems like it's been continually rebuilding since the 2008 Sugar Bowl, or even the year before. This is the nature of things, but it shouldn't be every season; it would be nice to have at least three returning starters some year.

Center Sila Lefiti was slated for the first team last year until a foot injury knocked him down the depth chart. Either he or Leonard — also stalled by injury last year — is slated to snap, with the other at left guard. Austin Hansen is in camp, but last year's starting left tackle's eligibility for the fall has yet to be determined.

"We have the same kind of cohesion concern" as last year at this time, Rolovich said.

The line was the team's biggest concern headed into 2010, and it performed well in the opener against USC. UH got sacked 40 times last year, compared to 36 the year before in one less game. That indicates a holding pattern, and the pun is not intended, since the group did improve significantly in the penalties department.

Can the line take a big step forward in 2011 despite a lack of game experience once again? This camp shows the raw talent isn't so raw anymore and at least some of the youngsters should be ready. But you never know for sure until they get into a real game.

Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at dreardon@staradvertiser.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/davereardon.






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