Iupati gears up for call

SUNDAY, APRIL 18, 2010

Experts predict Vandals star guard will be top-20 pick in NFL draft

MOSCOW, Idaho – If Thursday night unfolds like many expect it to, at some point Mike Iupati will take a call from a National Football League franchise and quickly see his face – scraggly beard, dark ponytail and all – splashed all over ESPN.

It will be a life-altering moment for sure. But becoming a first-round NFL draft pick won’t just impact Iupati. It should also brighten his parents’ outlook.

Aposetolo and Belinda Iupati have felt a deep financial strain since moving their family from American Samoa to Southern California nearly a decade ago. The cultural and language barriers at the start were one thing, but Aposetolo also tried to eke out a living as a mechanic.

“It’s tough to live down in California,” said Mike, the third of four children in the family. “It’s very expensive. This is a great opportunity to help them out. They’ve been sacrificing a lot since we got here.”

The Iupatis came to the United States to access better schools for their kids, and soon Mike – who was 14 when the family landed in Los Angeles – blossomed into an imposing lineman despite not having played organized football in Samoa.

As his profile grew at the University of Idaho, Mike hoped he would be able to at least lighten his parents’ burden as a professional athlete. Yet now, in rarefied air for an NFL prospect at his position, Mike’s plan is for his father to retire after Mike signs his first lucrative contract.

The 6-foot-5, 331-pound guard hopped from one major airport to another over the last few weeks – visiting 10 teams in all – in what amounted to a series of demanding job interviews. At each stop, he underwent extensive physical exams and met with coaches and management.

The traveling reminded Iupati of college recruiting visits, only this time he has no control of where he’ll end up. His only gut feeling is that he will be a first-rounder – a pretty safe hunch, it appears.

Most draft analysts have Iupati pegged as a top-20 pick. Getting drafted that high would be unusual for a guard, but his nimble feet, long arms and large frame have some teams thinking he could slide to tackle with a little seasoning.

“I think he has potential to play tackle,” Idaho coach Robb Akey said. “I really do because he’s athletic enough. He’s got the feet to be able to do that. He’s a big, strong man who can move that way.”

“I’ve never played tackle, but I know I’ll be a great tackle if I get an opportunity to learn it,” Iupati said.

So why wasn’t Iupati the Vandals’ left tackle the past few years? The short answer is that UI coaches felt he was more valuable at left guard, where he could be a lead blocker or pull if the Vandals ran to the right side.

“He could have been a great left tackle for us,” Akey said. “But at the same time, by playing him at guard, we could use him both ways. We want to run the ball left, he’s there. We want to run the ball right, we can pull him. You’re not pulling your left tackle.”

Just as quarterbacks and left tackles typically get plucked early in the draft, guards and centers are viewed by scouts as mid- to late-round options. It’s been three years since a guard went in the first round, and last year the first guard wasn’t drafted until the 51st pick.

But Iupati is clearly not an ordinary interior line prospect. At Idaho he was a devastating downfield blocker. Once in open space, Iupati used his agility and strength to toss aside linebackers and defensive backs.

“Mike’s a hell of an athlete,” UI left tackle Matt Cleveland said. “He’s 330 pounds and he moves like a tight end. He’s powerful, he’s strong, he’s got good feet. I think he can do whatever he wants to.”

Pro coaches and personnel directors apparently agree. The National Football Post, citing NFL sources, reported last week Iupati is so coveted that he’s expected to be drafted in the first half of the 32-pick first round.

Even if he doesn’t go that high, he’s almost sure to be the first Vandal taken in the top round since Ray McDonald went to the Washington Redskins in 1967 with the 13th pick.

Akey plans on relishing the rare exposure Iupati and the Idaho program will garner as the draft’s first round moves from its traditional early Saturday time slot to Thursday evening (4:30 PDT) on ESPN. After Iupati is selected, snippets of footage from his playing days will be shown and future recruits will get a glimpse at what’s possible at UI, Akey said.

Iupati and Akey embraced after the Vandals’ scrimmage on Saturday morning, and Akey told his former star player to get ready for 1,000 phone calls Thursday night. More important, Iupati is focused on making a solid first impression with his new employer – and helping his parents financially.

“I’m just going to take care of my family first,” he said, “and then take care of myself too for the long run.”

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