Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Arizona football: American Samoan spent freshman year picking up systems

Aiulua Fanene has a system.

Whenever the Arizona Wildcats defensive tackle wants to call home, he first phones his brother, Jonathan, in Ohio.

Jonathan Fanene, a defensive end with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals, punches a few buttons and then connects his younger brother to Nu'uuli, American Samoa, so he can connect with their parents.

It's a complex, time-consuming process with one obvious reward.

"I don't waste my money," he said.

Fanene is taking advantage of every opportunity this spring, whether it's playing time on the Wildcats' rebuilt defensive line or - thanks to his brother - an inexpensive way to call home.

Coaches believe the 6-foot-4-inch, 280-pound Fanene can develop into something special. Fanene was named the UA scout team's defensive MVP as a true freshman last fall; uncommonly strong and constantly improving, he could be a surprise contributor in 2011.

"He's getting better," coach Mike Stoops said. "He's young, he's a big body inside, and he's certainly getting more comfortable. We're pleased with his overall development."

No player has come further, both geographically and on the field.

Fanene grew up in American Samoa, a South Pacific island located more than 5,000 miles from Tucson. Fanene starred at Tafuna High School and was profiled on CBS' "60 Minutes" but arrived at the UA last summer with so little football experience that he was immediately redshirted.

Fanene spent the 2010 season mimicking opposing defenses and picking up the nuances of a position that requires more than brute strength.

His improvement is showing this spring: Fanene's technique is better, and his recognition of opposing offenses is sharper. The 18-year-old has learned to leverage his body and "get low" when the ball is snapped, defensive tackles coach Joe Salave'a said.

The last remaining piece - a killer instinct - is still developing.

"Sometimes, he's too nice," Salave'a said. "I've got to make sure I carve his teeth a little bit and that when we're between the white lines, let's not be too friendly."

Salave'a, who grew up in American Samoa before moving to Oceanside, Calif., as a high-schooler, says friendliness is "just a part of these guys' personalities."

"That's good, but you have to play this game with brute strength and toughness," he said. "Along with that, you have to make sure we're honed in on the fundamentals and the technique aspect."

Fanene's tireless work ethic and willingness to improve has already made him a favorite of coaches and teammates.

Fanene misses home but said he's content playing football in Tucson. The UA's Polynesian recruiting pipeline and Salave'a's presence on the coaching staff means Fanene is never far from a familiar face. Offensive lineman Lene Maiava, a high school teammate of Fanene, will enroll at the UA this summer.

By then, Fanene should have his new role mastered.

"Working hard is a step-by-step thing," Fanene said. "Every day I come outside, I need to be focused - I need to be all hyped up, be physical, think positive and humble myself. … I know I'm a freshman, but I have to think I'm mature enough."

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