MOSCOW – The first day of preseason workouts, Tueni Lupeamanu tried to explain why it feels different around the University of Idaho football program.
The leader of the Vandals’ defensive line talked about the “Expect To Win” mantra that Paul Petrino preaches and that’s emblazoned on T-shirts seen around the program. He spoke of the shift in the team’s mindset compared to his first years in Moscow.
Then he turned to himself.
“When I first stepped on campus, it was kind of iffy,” Lupeamanu said. “First of all, I had never played defensive line before, so that was my biggest fear.”
If you want to understand the comfort level Lupeamanu feels entering his senior season at Idaho, it helps to understand his story: how he went from a freewheeling quarterback in suburban Salt Lake City who was recruited by BYU to becoming a force on the defensive line.
“He was a quarterback in high school,” UI defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “It’s crazy.”
Lupeamanu didn’t just moonlight at quarterback at Herriman (Utah) High School; it was his main gig, and he excelled at it. He went from a 190-pound sophomore to a 6-foot-1, 245-pound senior whose recruiting highlight video on YouTube evokes memories of Marques Tuiasosopo at Washington.
Even though he kept bulking up in high school, Lupeamanu stayed at QB while also playing linebacker and punter. BYU, Stanford, Utah and Utah State showed early interest, mainly pursuing him as an athlete – a general tag for a player who doesn’t fit one position – or outside linebacker.
He told schools he wanted to play defense in college, and he knew he was likely to get bigger because of his Polynesian heritage. Still, it took his recruiting visit to Idaho for the light to turn on.
“When I came on my visit here, I was like 250 (pounds),” Lupeamanu said. “And then coach said I’m going to try playing defensive line … As soon as I went home, I was like, ‘All right. I’ve got to come back bigger.’ ”
Even while learning a new position and being undersized at around 255 pounds, Lupeamanu played in 11 games as a true freshman in 2013, Petrino’s first year as Idaho coach.
He’s since grown into a disruptive, athletic defensive tackle who checks in at 280 to 285 pounds “on a good day,” he said with a laugh. (He’s listed at 305 pounds on the Idaho roster).
“It’s definitely harder trying to get used to playing at a bigger (weight),” Lupeamanu said. “But I feel like it helps me out that I played quarterback because of the athleticism or something, you know. I’m just used to moving around more.”
“He’s gotten bigger, but he’s got great athleticism and it’s carried over with his size,” Breske said. “But he’s got fast-twitch and great hands.”
Last season, when the Vandals went 4-8, Lupeamanu collected 40 tackles, three quarterback hurries and a sack. He missed two games late in the year with a torn MCL, but he enters this year as the anchor of the D-line, Petrino said.
Lupeamanu is also one of 38 players on the watch list for the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year, an honor that he said shocked him. Both of his parents are from Samoa, and he follows other former Polynesian standouts at UI – most notably Mike Iupati, who was drafted in the first round by the 49ers and now plays for the Cardinals.
“It’s just a watch list,” he said. “I’ve got to ball out and represent my culture correct.”
He would have been happy doing that as a quarterback or linebacker – or even fullback, a position Petrino mentioned the day Lupeamanu signed. But he’s perfectly content as a defensive lineman.
“It turned out great for me,” Lupeamanu said. “I’m glad where I’m at.”
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