GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Freshman Kealoha Pilares will contend for the Warriors' vacant running back spot this season.
Pilares heads toward the light
Aloha Stadium has a hold on UH running back hopeful Kealoha Pilares
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The Star-Bulletin's series of weekly features on University of Hawaii football players preparing for the upcoming season continues today with a profile of freshman running back Kealoha Pilares.
Pilares, the Star-Bulletin's All-State Offensive Player of the Year in 2005, will be among the leading contenders for playing time at running back -- with Nate Ilaoa and Reagan Mauia gone to the NFL -- when fall camp opens next month.
This time last year, Pilares was headed to the Air Force Academy but decided to return to Hawaii after attending the school's summer orientation program.
When he committed to UH it was decided he would grayshirt, enrolling in school during the spring and using the time to pack muscle onto his 5-foot-10 frame and familiarize himself with the Warrior offense.
When he got on the field for spring practice, he showed he still had the burst that made him the state's most explosive player two years ago, when he averaged 190 rushing yards per game and scored 23 touchdowns for Damien. Putting on some weight to help in his duties as a blocker has been a priority for the summer as he prepares for a spirited competition for playing time in the backfield alongside quarterback Colt Brennan. Among those expected to push for the job is transfer Leon Wright-Jackson, who started his career at Nebraska.
"(The coaches) just tell me to work hard," Pilares said. "Everyone's talking about Leon. I just hope for the best. I just try to do what I can do, try to work out and make it count because it's going to be beneficial when fall comes around."
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Visions of playing in Aloha Stadium on Saturday nights in the fall keep Kealoha Pilares from venturing out much after dark this summer.
"I never go out at night," the Hawaii freshman said. "I try to sleep before 10:30, because I have something in front of me. I have the opportunity to play, so I want to make the best out of it."
A year ago, Pilares was preparing for the regimented life of a military academy. This summer, predawn wake-ups remain a part of his daily routine, though his focus now is centered on the competition for playing time in the Warrior backfield.
Most mornings, Pilares leaves his Wahiawa home by 5, arriving at the UH weight room about an hour later after dropping his mother off at work. There he'll endure a workout designed to pack muscle on his 5-foot-10 frame. Then there are drills with his teammates and running in the afternoons before heading home.
"It's a tough day," Pilares said.
Following a strong showing in spring practice, Pilares will be among the contenders for the running back job when fall camp opens as the Warriors look to replace seniors Nate Ilaoa and Reagan Mauia, both of whom were selected in the NFL Draft in April.
Pilares joined the program as a grayshirt, waiting until the spring to enroll in school, thus starting his eligibility clock this season. Though he didn't participate in team activities last fall, he spent the fall semester sitting in on video sessions and hitting the weights.
When he got on the field for spring practice, the Damien graduate showed he still had the quickness and slippery moves -- which he credits to playing freeze tag in grade school -- that earned him 2005 Star-Bulletin All-State Offensive Player of the Year honors. But he knows his ability to help protect quarterback Colt Brennan will go a long way to determining his playing time this fall.
To that end, he's worked to put on some weight since arriving on campus around 175 pounds. He crept close to 200 pounds earlier this summer before dropping 10 pounds due to an illness. His goal is to be back around 195 when fall camp starts next month.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
UH running back Kealoha Pilares knows blocking ability will be key if he is to win a starting spot this season.
"In high school I never took weights seriously, and I knew I had to come over here and get in the weight room every day," Pilares said. "I was horrible coming in, I would say I was the weakest guy by far.
"Right now I think I'm in the best shape I've ever been in. I can see results. I think that's what's pushing me, too."
One of his high school foes can already see a difference.
"He's been working hard starting from last summer," said freshman quarterback Kiran Kepo'o, an Iolani grad, who also entered the program in the spring. "He's getting bigger, but he's still got the speed. I can tell he's been in the weight room."
Though he didn't play offense until his senior season, Pilares powered Damien in 2005, rushing for 1,900 yards and 23 touchdowns. He closed his high school career by carrying the ball 48 times in a spectacular 300-yard, five-touchdown performance against Iolani.
"I remember there were 3 seconds before the end of the first half and we had just scored," Kepo'o recalled. "We thought we'd just kick it to someone else, kick it away from him. But somehow he got the ball ... broke four or five tackles and went right into the end zone. I know this kid is going to do a lot of good stuff for us (at UH)."
Pilares has eased off on his running regimen lately due to a tight hamstring. But he remains committed to his early morning schedule, roused out of bed by the image of the bright lights in Halawa.
"That's the first thing that goes through my head," he said. "Just playing in the stadium and representing your home and your team."
But individual performances and accolades aren't what stir Pilares out of bed in the dark of morning. Rather, he remains uncomfortable with adulation.
"When you get to college football, everyone has those high school stories, so it doesn't really matter," Pilares said. "Coming from a school where everybody knew me, just coming over here, it doesn't matter where you came from you still have to prove yourself. That was pretty good for me and that's what I wanted. I never liked being on top and getting all the attention."
Pilares initially committed to the Air Force Academy coming out of Damien. But a month at the academy's summer orientation program led him to look homeward after getting a taste of military life.
"Recruiting was done and (the UH coaches) said they had all their scholarships filled," Pilares said. "I didn't want my parents to pay for school, so I was really happy when they had one for me. It's kind of a miracle, if you ask me."
Along with improving his physique, Pilares is also working on adorning his skin. He has Tahitian and Maori designs tattooed onto his right calf and down his left arm. But a smaller mark on the right side of his neck -- a tribute to his grandmother, Violet -- bears the most meaning.
"Every time I look in the mirror it reminds me of her," he said.