Thursday, September 9, 1999
The former St. Louis School
standout has made it his job
to fire up his teammates
Fonoti making sudden impactBy Kalani Simpson
Special to the Star-Bulletin
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Dominic Raiola is the best kind of teammate and the worst kind of opponent, the kind of guy every football player loves to have on his team. Or, if he plays for the other side, he is nothing short of the most hated man in the stadium.
Intense is not a strong enough word to describe the frame of mind he brings to football for fifth-rated Nebraska as the Cornhuskers' sophomore starting center. Neither is aggressive.
"Oh, Dom's great," Nebraska offensive line coach Milt Tenopir said of the St. Louis School alumnus. "He's learning more to play within himself.
"Sometimes," Tenopir said dryly, "he gets a little overexhuberant."
Last fall, before the biggest game in Kansas State history and with 50,000 Wildcat fans already whipped into a frenzy, it was Raiola who led the Nebraska team onto the field in hostile territory, helmet off, asking the crowd for more.
And the scoreboard cameras caught him running out of the Husker tunnel before Nebraska's game with Texas, breathing fire and pumping the Longhorns sacred "Hook 'em Horns" sign upside down.
Everybody should be so excited to play football. But Raiola said a lack of such emotion in his team was a big factor in Nebraska's first four-loss season in 30 years last year.
He sees it as his job to get his teammates fired up. He's working to remake Nebraska's offensive line, normally composed of stoic farmboys, in his own image.
"More intense," he promised of this season. "More nastiness. We didn't have that last year."
On the field, Raiola gives the mild-mannered Huskers their edge. He doesn't walk back to the huddle or off the field, he swaggers.
Slowly. Very slowly.
So slowly, his opponents can't help but notice. He does a lot of things like that. He'll strut or jump around or yell or maybe just happen to almost bump you on your way up from the turf. If you are playing against Raiola you can be sure of one thing: He doesn't like you.
In picking Raiola to its preseason All-Big 12 squad, one publication summed him up this way: "Big time athleticism, even bigger mean streak."
"I'm totally different off the field," he said. "It's like a switch that goes off. Just seeing an opponent gets my blood pumping and I just want to go out and kick somebody off the field."
Raiola is not a dirty player. He's just serious about his right to keep hitting people until the whistle blows. But Raiola is more than just a deliciously nasty attitude. Last year, following a redshirt, he had one of the best freshman seasons for an offensive lineman in Nebraska history.
Coaches always praise seniors, but by midway through the season, impartial observers were quietly admitting that Raiola was the best offensive lineman on the team. He would rotate at left guard, center and right guard, sometimes going right down the line, a series at each. Often, he would play more than the starters, leading the team in knock-down blocks three times.
Tenopir placed him at center this year, where Raiola has quickly taken charge. After his sensational freshman debut, the Sporting News Football Yearbook picked the Husker from Honolulu as the fourth best center in the country.
"He's a very good leader for us," Tenopir said.
Nebraska insiders have already anointed him as The Next Great Husker Lineman. At a school with seven Outland Trophy winners, this is high praise indeed.
"I feel good about that," he said. "If they want to put my name with the (Dave) Rimingtons and the (Aaron) Taylors and the (Aaron) Grahams. That's big expectations, but I want to live up to them."
Graham, an All-American on Nebraska's 1994 and '95 championship teams who now plays for the Arizona Cardinals, came back to Lincoln to work out in the off-season and took Raiola under his wing. The two trained in the mental game for Raiola's full-time switch to center.
And his teammates are following his lead. The Nebraska offensive line this season seems more intense, more nasty, more Raiola.
"The offensive line has a lot of confidence this year," said quarterback Bobby Newcombe. "They also have a lot of fire, a lot of aggression when they're playing."
Fonoti making suddenBy Kalani Simpson
impact with Huskers
Special to the Star-Bulletin
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Kahuku grad Toniu Fonoti is making history at Nebraska.
Last Saturday against Iowa, Fonoti became only the third true freshman in modern Husker history to play on the offensive line at a school that boasts seven Outland Trophy winners and 36 All-Americans at those positions.
The last guy to do what Fonoti is doing, Will Shields in 1989, went on to All-America honors, won an Outland Trophy and pencils in an annual trip to the Pro Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs.
It's still early, but Fonoti's progress with the No. 5 Huskers has been astounding.
"He's a guy that potentially could be one of the best we've ever had here if he keeps busting his tail like he has been," said Nebraska offensive line coach Milt Tenopir of his offensive guard prodigy. "But he's still green."
That's the only thing holding him back. At last week's pregame press conference, Fonoti had a handful of reporters waiting to talk to him, but Tenopir kept him watching film, drilling his knowledge of the game in one-on-one sessions. Tenopir's extra attention only shows how happy Nebraska coaches are with Fonoti, who played about one-third of the Huskers' offensive snaps against the Hawkeyes.
"Toniu has been a guy who has been practicing with the first team for some time now and he has picked it up very, very well," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "We're tremendously pleased with Toniu in a lot of ways."
"It's tough on him," said starting center and All-America candidate Dominic Raiola, a St. Louis School grad. "But he's taking it like a champ."
At the line, Fonoti will sometimes ask Raiola for help on assignments. But when all else fails, Fonoti just does what he did at Kahuku -- look for someone to hit.
"He doesn't know the business yet, but he's aggressive," Tenopir said.
Tenopir said he saw the potential in Fonoti when he watched film of the Hauula product when he played for Kahuku.
"Yeah, we knew what we were getting," Tenopir said. "We wouldn't have recruited him if we hadn't."
What they were getting was their best freshman lineman in 10 years.