University of Washington

It's harder than ever to recruit football talent here. But the Huskies are back in the game

Husky coach Ikaika Malloe watches his players during first day of practice at University of Washington on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.
Husky coach Ikaika Malloe watches his players during first day of practice at University of Washington on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.

When it comes to having potential college football players, Hawaii plays bigger than its size.

Based off 247 Sports' evaluations, Hawaii has 22 Football Bowl Subdivision prospects. That's more than states on the East Coast (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont), the Midwest (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin), the South (Arkansas, South Carolina, West Virginia) and the West (Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming).

To those who know football recruiting this is no shock. For many years, the Washington Huskies scoured Hawaii for talent. Huskies coach Chris Petersen and his staff have always recruited Polynesian players yet UW didn't sign any Hawaii high school players during their first four years.

However, UW signed three-star linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui for its 2018 class and recently got a commitment from three-star defensive tackle Sama Paata for the 2019 recruiting cycle. Those moves reinforce the Huskies efforts into making Hawaii a priority.

They aren't the only school recruiting the islands. Thanks to the internet and social media, Hawaii — once seemingly the private property of West Coast schools — is a popular destination not only for tourists but recruiters around the nation.

"(Schools) are realizing 'We've gotta recruit the state of Hawaii,' " said Brandon Huffman, the national college football recruiting editor for 247. "The 2019 class in Hawaii is very good. The 2020 class has a chance to be very good. So this isn't like it's a flash in the pan."

Players such as Marcus Mariota, McKenzie Milton and Tua Tagovailoa helped raise the profile. Mariota won the Heisman Trophy at Oregon and is now the starting quarterback for the Tennessee Titans. Milton, a junior, led UCF to an undefeated regular season while Tagovailoa, a sophomore, threw the game-winning touchdown in Alabama's College Football Playoff final overtime victory over Georgia.

"I think it's always been like that. Now with Tua and the SEC and all that, I think there's more exposure and I think there's more schools recruiting there," Huskies defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe said. "But it's always been that way."

Malloe understands what it takes to recruit Hawaii better than most. He grew up in Waimanalo on the island of Oahu and was college football recruit in the early 1990s. He signed with UW and played from 1993 through 1996 for the Huskies.

He recalled how back then, the state still sent around seven or eight players to Division I programs while the rest on to junior college schools.

"I think when I was playing — Washington, USC, Oregon and Arizona — it was those four schools that came," Malloe said. "Then the Big Ten and now you're seeing schools in the Southeast."

Malloe said he started seeing more schools take an interest in the state around the early 2000s, which is around the time recruiting made its way onto the internet.

He also pointed out the rise of Polynesian players helped bring attention to all of the Pacific Islands.

"I think once recruiting in terms of being Polynesian became a bigger factor," he said. "I think Hawaii became more recruited."

UW recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Keith Bhonapha can also speak to the national interest in Hawaii. He played four seasons at the University of Hawaii and was a graduate assistant there (2003-2005).

Bhonapha said the state has always been strong at producing sizable offensive and defensive lineman.

Five of the state's Top 10 2019 prospects are linemen. Five-star defensive lineman Faatui Tuitele, the state's No. 1 prospect, is 6-foot-4 and weighs 299 pounds. Paama, who is the No. 6 recruit in Hawaii, is the second-largest talent. He stands 6-5 and 325 pounds. The largest? Three-star offensive lineman Arasi Mose is also 6-5 but weighs 345 pounds.

"Hawaii is a big destination to get some of those big bodies," Bhonapha said. "They also play hard-nosed football like they do around the country. But along with those big bodies, you can go out there and recruit them."

Size, while an asset, isn't the only thing in Hawaii worth recruiting.

Huffman said Mariota's rise at Oregon opened the door for players other than linemen to be recruited.

The remaining half of the state's Top 10 prospects all fit into that category. Four-star linebacker Maninoa Tufono, the No. 2 prospect in Hawaii, is the No. 91 inside linebacker in the nation. He has 35 scholarship offers ranging that span the nation having attracted attention from Florida, LSU, Notre Dame and Texas.

247 lists Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC and UW as the five schools with the strongest odds at landing him. The recruiting service predicts there's a "100 percent" chance he'll commit to the Huskies.

"It was Mariota who gave Hawaii that credibility you can find more than lineman," Huffman said. "You're seeing the talent has always been there. ... It's all in Oahu. Ninety-nine percent of the talent is in Oahu but you're now seeing schools recruit more than just linemen."

Huffman said the need to recruit Hawaii has become so great that nearly every Pac-12 program has at least one coach of Polynesian heritage on staff.

Six of the state's Top 10 prospects in 2018 signed with Power 5 programs. Four went to Pac-12 schools while two of them signed with Virginia. Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall recruited the Pacific Islands while he was at BYU. Mendenhall has three assistants of Polynesian heritage on staff.

Petersen has cultivated one of the most diverse coaching staffs in college football. He told The News Tribune last December he wanted to build a staff of quality people while also recognizing diversity because its a reflection of the UW community and the Huskies' locker room.

Malloe is Hawaiian and Tahitian; tight ends coach Jordan Paopao is Samoan. Bhonapha, defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake along with assistant defensive backs coach Will Harris are black. Huskies offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan is half-Pakistani and half-Palestinian.

Malloe said UW's four-year absence from Hawaii was about timing. The Huskies continued to look at Hawaii and Malloe also made a point of maintaining relationships with high school coaches, many of whom he either played with or against.

He smiled when he said the Huskies got "a little lucky" with Tupuola-Fetui, who also entertained offers from California, Oregon and Vanderbilt among others.

The goal, he said, is to restart UW's Hawaii's pipeline. Talking about it made Malloe remember his playing days. He said UW had 22 Polynesian players and eight were from Hawaii.

Considering Malloe is from Hawaii, has some of the strongest ties to the state and is a living example of someone who had success, what's it like to know there are expectations the Huskies should be a serious challenger?

"Wow. That's a tough question," Malloe said. "In a tough way, I do feel like I can get people from Hawaii. But I feel like there is a pressure to get people as well. Hawaii is all about family, culture, the work ethic. That's what they pride themselves on and I think they look for a program that tries to fit that nature.

"I think, right now, with what Coach Petersen is doing, we fit that culture."

Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark