Kaniela Tuipulotu’s return to Aloha Stadium next week offers both a fresh start and another shot at an old nemesis.
As Hawaii hones its game plan for its season-opening matchup with USC, Tuipulotu is the lone Warrior who can draw on personal experience in his preparations.
The former Kahuku standout traded paint with the Trojans during his two years at Arizona and will line up across from them a third time when he makes his Hawaii debut a week from tomorrow.
"I’m 0-2 versus USC, so hopefully we can pull out a victory," said Tuipulotu, who played in Arizona’s 17-10 loss to the Trojans in 2008.
"You always get pumped for a big team like that, but once you get out there it’s another team. You go through your reads, play hard and play fast. … When you play teams like that, you have to bring your ‘A’ game and nothing less because if you’re not ready they’re going to smash on you. You can’t waste a day out here because they’re working hard and they’re going to be ready for a game."
Tuipulotu hasn’t savored the adrenaline of game day since leaving the field following Arizona’s victory over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl to close the 2008 season.
Tuipulotu transferred to Hawaii last year and spent a season on the periphery due to NCAA transfer rules, a period that coincided with his recovery from shoulder surgery. He’s now back to full health and full verve after he "lost my fire for football" during his stay in Arizona.
After an all-state senior season at Kahuku, Tuipulotu was among the state’s most coveted recruits and signed with the Wildcats. He broke into the defensive line as a true freshman, seeing action in seven games. He continued to see significant playing time as a sophomore, but hit a point where football became "a chore."
Injuries didn’t help matters and when it became apparent his shoulders would require surgery and a year away from the field, he obtained his release from Arizona to initiate the transfer process and enrolled at UH last fall.
Immersed in island life again but in the unfamiliar role of observer, he rediscovered his passion for football during that redshirt season.
"Now I’m back, I’m having fun again and I’m enjoying every moment I’m out here with my teammates," Tuipulotu said.
"I can’t wait to get back out there and do whatever I can to help the team, help with the run, rushing the passer, anything to be out there."
Tuipulotu brings experience to a defensive tackle rotation that includes junior Vaughn Meatoga and sophomores Haku Correa and Geordon Hanohano.
UH defensive line coach Tony Tuioti said Tuipulotu hovered around 320 pounds when he joined the program. He was down to 310 for spring ball and enters the season in the 290 range. His improved conditioning is allowing him to better endure the grind in the middle of the line of scrimmage.
"You really need to play all those guys, it’s not like any other position," Tuioti said. "You’re asking them to do a lot of things … and they have to be in shape and be able to run. Kani’s done a great job getting himself into shape and putting in the hard work needed. I’m excited to see him play on Sept. 2.
"He’s got a lot of experience and played at a high level and we’re going to need to draw from that as we get into the season. … He brings a physical presence inside and we need that, especially facing a lot of the running teams we’re going to see."
A countdown in the Warriors’ weight room has gradually tracked the days remaining until the USC game. The count dropped into single digits yesterday, bringing Tuipulotu ever closer to that rush of surging out of the locker room — enhanced this time by his renewed perspective.
"It’s something you don’t really feel anywhere else," Tuipulotu said. "You feel alive when you come out of the tunnel. And I’ll probably feel 10 times more alive coming out at Aloha Stadium."