Sunday, April 6, 2003

Basketball forward-turned-defensive lineman Nkeruwem Akpan worked on some hand drills at a recent practice.

There’s nowhere to
hide in 1-on-1 drills

Offensive linemen are at a
disadvantage when they
face defensive linemen

By Dave Reardon

Like overclad sumo wrestlers, Kila Kamakawiwo'ole and Brandon Eaton square off. A few fans continue to watch the quarterbacks throw to the receivers, but this is where the real action is.

This is one-on-ones, a highlight of spring football practice, where the starved of contact -- players and observers -- get a fix. The big men from the Hawaii offensive and defensive lines battle for position on the depth chart and unit pride in rapid-fire succession, one individual, pad-popping skirmish at a time.

On the snap, Kamakawiwo'ole jabs around the inside of Eaton. If this was in a game, a teammate might have been able to make up for Eaton's mistake. Maybe not, though, with the result a sack or a pass thrown before its time.

"Do it again," offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh growls.

This time the result is worse for Eaton -- actually, as bad as it can get. Kamakawiwo'ole bullrushes Eaton, and knocks down a man more than 50 pounds heavier than he.

Cheers and fist bumps for the green-clad defenders. Red faces and lowered heads for the offense guys in white.

But only briefly.

Eaton immediately atones by locking up senior defensive end Kevin Jackson with some fine technique.

After yesterday's practice, Cavanaugh acknowledged Eaton's resilience. But he had no problem sharing why one of his prize prospects got planted by a guy who played defensive back in high school.

"He's got to learn that you've got to be deadly with your hands. If you expose your chest and you give the defender everything inside, that's what's going to happen," Cavanaugh said. "You're going to get knocked down on your can."

Meanwhile, defensive line coach Vantz Singletary -- who already has a wealth of talent and experience with which to work -- gushes over Kamakawiwo'ole.

"Great leverage and explosiveness. I don't expect that from Kila because he's a finesse guy. I told him I want him to get nasty and really mean and he showed me he can do that," Singletary said. "I told him you keep doing that, look to get some reps this year."

The key phrase is "keep doing that." One or two plays in spring practice don't get you a starting spot. But they do get you noticed and bode well for the future, since Kamakawiwo'ole is only a sophomore and the Warriors lose all their top defensive linemen after the 2003 season.

"I'm still learning, just starting to learn all the techniques coach is trying to teach us," said Kamakawiwo'ole, a former outside linebacker. "I gained too much weight, worked myself down to D-end. But it's pretty good, pretty fun."

Eaton fared better in one-on-ones against Reggie Maldonado, Keali'i Aguiar and Abu Ma'afala. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore from Houston said he isn't going to let one disastrous encounter bother him. He plans to learn from it.

"I set up a little too high and he got under me," Eaton said, wiping grass from his face. "It's all about getting back up, trusting your technique. Today I had a hard day. I just need to keep working hard and watch some more film, trust my technique."

Technique and the 6-foot-8, 235-pound Nkeruwem "Tony" Akpan haven't even met yet. The basketball forward, who joined the team Thursday, relied on sheer size and speed and the encouragement of his new teammates to get past Shayne Kajioka and tackle Dane Uperesa.

"It's all new to me. Everyone is supportive of me, telling me how to do it," said Akpan, who is from Nigeria, where football is soccer. "As soon as I got here, people were asking me about playing football. Players, coaches, trainers. I decided to give it a shot. They said I have good foot-speed for someone my size."

That might not be enough in a real game. As one interested observer pointed out, the defensive players should be able to make the offensive players look silly in one-on-ones. It's different on Saturday night when you have a cohesive unit of five offensive linemen who communicate. Anyway, that's what second-team All-America guard Vince Manuwai said.

"I remember the first time I did one-on-ones here. It wasn't pretty. You have to remember the defense has an advantage because they can just run wide. But that's how defensive line is. You can pretty much just attack," Manuwai said. "(The offense has) got new guys taking reps this year. They're learning how to be patient. Even when I was doing that four years I came out rusty the first day as a senior and had to learn to be patient again rather than coming out thinking aggressive. They're going through the same thing right now."

Samson Satele, who along with fellow freshman Uperesa is among the prime candidates to fill two open tackle positions, seemed to improve as the drills went along. He was clearly beaten by Lance Samuseva and Jackson in his first two tries, but finished strong.

"Going against Houston Ala, KJ, all the veterans, that's good for us young guys. Just how to be patient and snap more, keep my hands in," Satele said. "Some little basic things for tackles. I'm feeling very comfortable playing left tackle. I used to play on the right side all the time. My main goal this spring is to get good on the left side."

A good part of Cavanaugh's teachings -- which have produced three NFL linemen and two likely first-day draft picks later this month -- are all about patience. If yesterday was an indication, his will be tested as he tries to replace Manuwai, Wayne Hunter and Lui Fuata.

"We've got a long way to go. There was some good, some bad, that's how it always is. We've got to get better with our sets, better with our hands. We've got a long, long way to go," Cavanaugh said. "They've all got to trust what they're doing. They're all young and inexperienced. It comes down to being patient and trusting your footwork and your technique."

He's got guards Kajioka and Uriah Moenoa (who battled Isaac Sopoaga successfully yesterday) as a foundation, and Derek Faavi started some games at center.

And he's got some pretty good defensive "scouts" for them all to work against. The Sporting News is considering ranking UH's defensive line (and defensive backs) among the top 10 units in the nation.

So when coach June Jones sees the tape of defenders blowing past his offensive linemen, that's not a terrible thing. He knows this is a starting point.

"It helps us a lot. If we can block our guys, we can block anyone," Jones said. "I don't think there's anyone out there as good as our (defensive) line."

Manuwai said it helped make him an NFL prospect.

"Oh, very much. You've got Isaac, Houston, Lance, a bunch of those guys. Every day when I went against our D-line, I felt they were the best in our conference, so that made me play better during games. We had our days when everything fell apart, but there were times when the defense had bad days," he said. "The O-line got a good start on what they need to work on. It's going to be a long process. But with the experienced defensive linemen, that moves the process up quicker."

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