Utah finds success recruting the islands
The Utes' pipeline has landed them several top football players
SALT LAKE CITY » As if the University of Utah needed any more help attracting Hawaii's prep football standouts, the Utes recently added another weapon to their recruiting arsenal.
An L&L Hawaiian Barbecue (as the plate lunch institution is known on the mainland) opened just a mile or so down the road from Rice-Eccles Stadium last year.
"I was very excited," said Kahuku graduate Tavo Tupola, one of the top offensive linemen in the Mountain West Conference. "When it first opened, we were there every day. They saw a lot of us over there."
Tupola, who can now regularly fill up on Kalua pork and short ribs, is part of a sizable and influential contingent of Hawaii athletes on the Utah roster this season.
Tupola and defensive end Soli Lefiti, a senior from Kaneohe, are listed as starters for Utah's game at Wyoming on Saturday. Offensive lineman Jeremy Inferrera, who transferred from Hawaii two years ago, is the top backup at both center and left tackle behind Tupola.
Malakai Mokofisi (Kailua) and Loma Olevao (Kahuku), both juniors, are backup linebackers. Sophomore running back Ray Stowers (Iolani) has played in all six games this season with four carries for 21 yards.
Also on the roster are Kamehameha graduates Kepa Gaison and Tyler Williams, both redshirt freshmen.
The Hawaii group has helped Utah to a 4-2 record entering the week and a 2-0 mark in the Mountain West Conference.
"I think we're in a great spot," Tupola said after the Utes' practice yesterday afternoon. "We still have a lot on our plate so we're just taking it game by game."
Utah has a long history of recruiting players from Hawaii, with former head coach Ron McBride ramping up the program's efforts in the islands in the early 1990s.
"Hawaii's been a great recruiting ground and we're going to continue recruiting there, we'd be crazy not to," said current coach Kyle Wittingham. "There's too many great football players in Hawaii."
Now the pipeline tends to feed itself, with current players helping attract Hawaii high schoolers to the Salt Lake City campus.
"When (recruits) came out here we took care of them, so it's basically just another home," said Olevao, whose brother Kautai played linebacker for Utah in the '90s. "It's just like they never left."
"I like it out here," said Lefiti, who is hoping to return to action on Saturday after missing two games with a knee injury. "It kind of fits my style. It's kind of laid back, but you have the city, plus a lot of Polynesians, so it makes me comfortable."
Wittingham also hopes to restart the series between Hawaii and Utah on the field. He said the Utes don't have any openings on their schedule for next season but wants to set up a trip to Aloha Stadium in the years to come.
"We'd love to," he said. "I think we've tried a couple times and it just hasn't worked out yet, but that's something we'd like to do in the future.
"I know we talked to them, but for whatever reason the years or the dates didn't work out. But with all the players we have on our team from Hawaii it makes perfect sense to try to get a game scheduled there. We'd love to have the opportunity."
Unfortunately for most of the current Hawaii-born Utes, a future matchup with the Warriors would come too late.
"There's nothing like playing in Aloha Stadium," said Tupola, a preseason All-MWC pick. "Growing up, Aloha Stadium was the place to play. And right after the game just getting leis and plate lunches, there's no better feeling. That's what I grew up on and I was hoping so bad that we'd play them."
Inferrera did get to play in Aloha Stadium in college, starting on the offensive line his freshman year at Hawaii, before deciding to transfer. The junior sat out last season and has worked his way onto the two-deeps in his return to the field.
"It's kind of just starting over, a new program, it's a little different than Hawaii," he said. "I'm just trying to come out here and do my best and see what I can do.
"I just wanted to try something different. I didn't think things were working out for me (at UH) how I wanted it, but nothing against them, just wanted to try to do something else and move on."
Inferrera said he keeps in touch with Warrior lineman Marques Kaonohi and offered a report after the Utes' 48-0 win at Utah State last month. Hawaii visits Logan for a Western Athletic Conference game on Nov. 4.
"(Kaonohi) called me up and asked me how's the weather and stuff," Inferrera said. "I was like, 'It's a lot different, plus up there (in Logan) is a lot colder than here. It's about 10 degrees colder, so good luck.' It was the middle of September and it was like 40 degrees already."