Hawaii senior defensive lineman Matt Faga has dropped about 60 pounds from last season.

Warriors wonder if
they have the heart

Hawaii’s searching for
replacements at defensive

If defensive tackles are the heart of a football team, Hawaii is in the midst of a transplant.

The expended eligibility of Isaac Sopoaga and Lance Samuseva means the Warriors need to find new starters at both spots in the middle of the front four. Coach June Jones and defensive-line assistant Vantz Singletary want to develop those replacements this spring, as well as for four of the top five defensive ends.

Senior Lui Fuga and junior Abu Ma'afala are being counted on to fill the void at tackle. But if they move into the starting spots, capable backups to replace them must also be found; UH rotates tackles to keep them fresh throughout the game.

Matt Faga, a player who figures to do more with less this season, is expected to contribute heavily -- but lighter. Faga weighed close to 380 pounds last year, but is down to under 320 after nearly a year on the low-carbohydrate Atkins Diet. That's a tough road for a local boy who loves his rice.

"The job Matt Faga has done is unbelievable," Jones said.

Faga said he didn't want his senior season to be like last year, when he played briefly in four games and made two tackles.

"I want to play," said Faga, a Kaimuki graduate who played at Fresno City College before transferring to UH. "I don't want to just stand on the sideline and just watch everyone else have the fun. Lately I've been working out with Lui and he's been helping me learn all the techniques."

Fuga -- who is still crossing his fingers while waiting for word on a sixth year of NCAA eligibility -- said he finds Faga's dietary discipline inspirational.

"He wanted it," Fuga said. "He knew what he was up against and he did it."

Fuga doesn't have a weight problem, but he has a wait problem.

There's nothing he can do but practice and check for the go or no-go signal from the NCAA each day. Running back Jonathan Kauka worked out in spring practice last year with the Warriors, but his waiver request was rejected. Everyone tells Fuga his additional year is all but a done deal, but he has prepared himself emotionally for a fate like that of Kauka.

"Of course I'll be disappointed if it doesn't happen. I worked hard," he said. "I have other things planned. Football's not everything. But I love the game. This is what I love, this is what I dream."

Singletary hopes Fuga is around in the fall -- as much for his leadership as his athletic 299 pounds.

"Lui is my assistant coach. He's one of those people who talk about doing it right and doing it with a passion, and then he does it," Singletary said. "I see him in the weight room and the locker room taking charge."

Hawaii football coach June Jones, rear, looked on during spring drills yesterday at the UH practice field.

Kahai LaCount has a lot more time than Fuga, but the clock was running on him, too. Although only a third-year sophomore, he was in danger of frittering away his college football eligibility if he remained with the deep and young offensive-line group. He's greener than his defense jersey now, but LaCount and the coaches think he can work his way into the DT rotation this season.

"There's a lot of offensive linemen and I wasn't getting the reps I could've," said LaCount, who was a classmate of UH starting left guard Samson Satele at Kailua High School.

He said he was happy for Satele's success last season, though a bit envious.

"Oh yeah, I was getting jealous seeing him play," LaCount said. "At least this way I feel I can get in the rotation and get on the field. I'm getting used to it, you have to be more aggressive. We only played defense at Kailua when they really needed us. Then me, Sam and Marques (Kaonohi, another Surfriders and Warriors teammate) would, but hardly ever."

The 6-foot-3, 308-pound LaCount said he needs to get in better shape to play in the fall, but the main thing now is learning technique.

Singletary said LaCount is progressing well, and he compared him to Keali'i "Moose" Aguiar, a vagabond who shifted from defensive line to offensive line and back again to finally have a productive senior season last fall as a backup tackle.

"He's going to be my Moose this year," Singletary said of LaCount. "People threw in the towel on Moose. But Kahai is like him in a lot of ways. A strong, physical guy and a good, humble kid, but I think he's a defensive guy. I'm excited about him. I always hinted around to him (about playing defense). Mike (Cavanaugh, offensive-line coach) talked to him first and he welcomed it."

Discipline to lose weight, diligence to work when your time might be up and desire to try a new position are all fine, but the Warriors won't really know if they have the depth at tackle of the previous two seasons until September.

"Last year we had a good front four, no doubt about it," Faga said. "Coach Singletary says he doesn't lose any sleep, and he wants it to be that way this year. We just have to come stronger than last year. He's just trying to find the right guys, a few good men."

Short yardage: The Warriors have today and the weekend off from practice and return Monday. ... The coaching staff of Ballard High School (Seattle) visited yesterday. "We go around to various schools each spring. We've gone to SMU, Washington State," said coach Doug Trainor, who took his team to a state championship game last year. "We're going to Hawaii's offense this year. We were always a single-back team. Now we want to try to get our quarterback out of the pocket. June and his staff have been very helpful."


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