Po’okela Ahmad casually attributed the first takeaway of his college career to "just being in the right place at the right time."
True enough. But upon closer examination, his recovery of a fumbled punt against Colorado was the culmination of elements that put him in position to pounce on his good fortune.
"It was good effort, good release technique," UH assistant coach Chris Tormey said. "He used his hands and wrapped himself around the football. He did a lot of things right on that play."
Ahmad’s knack for doing the right thing has earned him a leadership role on special teams and extended playing time with the Warrior defense.
The Kapolei product is the top backup at both outside linebacker spots and is expected to share time with Aaron Brown on the strong side when the Warriors (1-2) face Charleston Southern (2-1) tomorrow at Aloha Stadium.
"I see it as an opportunity to play my position more instead of just special teams," Ahmad said.
"I see it as making my mark and trying to prove I’m good enough to be out there and I’m ready."
Ahmad was a reserve linebacker the past two years and remains a fixture on the punt and kickoff teams. But his development at linebacker contributed to the coaches’ decision to shift Paipai Falemalu to defensive end to boost the pass rush, thus increasing Ahmad’s role in the defensive packages.
"He’d always be a guy who would know what to do and know where to be," defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Dave Aranda said. "Now he’s translating that into making some plays.
"He can go on both sides so he’s real valuable. … Po’okela’s had to go through it the hard way. I have a lot of respect for him."
Ahmad and Brown also had to wait for their chances to make an impact on defense. While Ahmad waited his turn behind starters such as Adam Leonard and R.J. Kiesel-Kauhane, Brown’s patience was tested by a hamstring injury that led to a redshirt year last season and an ankle injury that kept him out of fall camp.
Brown recovered to make his first career start last week and finished with eight tackles, including one for loss, against Colorado.
"It hurt him not being around for (camp) so there’s still some learning and some reps he needs to get under his belt and we’re doing that as we go," Aranda said.
"There’s certain guys when you blitz them, things happen. (Brown’s) one of those guys, we want to put him where the action is. Po’okela has shown he can be one of those guys."
While Ahmad is relishing the chance to get into a rhythm with his increased work load, the Warrior defense will try to do a better job getting off the field tomorrow. The Warriors rank next to last (119th) in the FBS in third-down conversion defense at 59 percent, and were on the field for 78 plays in last week’s loss at Colorado.
"What it really was was mental breakdowns and us not playing the way we practice like the coaches said," Ahmad said. "We’ve been practicing really hard and really good, and come game time it’s like we’re not really the same team. We just have to transfer whatever we practice onto the field."