Amonai Itaaehau was 6 feet tall and what Mesa Desert Ridge football coach Jeremy Hatchock called “a 260-pound fatty.”
That was last May, and the then-linebacker wasn’t even a blip on a college coach’s radar.
Then, during a senior season in which he grew 2½ inches and lost 20 pounds, Itaaehau transformed into what Hathcock now calls “a future NFL player.”
Hathcock moved the Tongan from inside linebacker to defensive end during the 11-2 season, and he wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
“I’ve never seen a person where the whole team was scared of him,” Hathcock said. “He is the Charles Barkley of Arizona high school football. Everyone hates him.
“He’s mean. But he’s the first person the coach would love to have.”
Only problem is by the time this beast of an athlete emerged, most colleges were done with their recruiting for 2014 players, and he was looking at offers only from Big Sky schools Northern Arizona, Montana and UC-Davis.
After a recent recruiting trip to Northern California, Itaaehau, who has a 3.6 grade-point average, committed to UC-Davis, which also landed Gilbert Mesquite safety Jordan Robinson and Chandler linebacker/defensive lineman Jordan Hoyt.
All three will have their dreams fulfilled Wednesday when they sign national letters of intent after nothing seemed to be falling their way on the long, often frustrating recruiting road.
Hoyt, 6-4, 260 pounds, didn’t even have a junior season to build a highlight tape to send to recruiters. He spent the 2012 season rehabilitating from knee surgery to repair a torn anterior-cruciate ligament.
Suddenly, the recruiters who were hot on him as a sophomore went cold.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through,” said Hoyt, who was moved around last season from linebacker to defensive end to defensive tackle, the latter of which he will likely play in college. “Initially, I was disappointed. Every guy wants everybody wanting them. Once I met the UC-Davis players and coaches, I knew it was right. I always wanted to play Division I football. I’m satisfied I can play, and I have a school that will pay for it.”
Itaaehau had 101 tackles, nine for losses, in helping Desert Ridge reach the Division I semifinals before losing to state champion Phoenix Mountain Pointe. During the third week of the season, Itaaehau said he felt himself growing taller.
“And I was slimming down,” he said. “I gained a lot of weight in January and I lost it. Once I slimmed down, I grew and stretched a little bit. My footwork got a lot better, and my timing and quickness improved.”
The lack of a college offer of the kind for which athletes aspire drives guys like Itaaehau and Hoyt.
It’s not an exact science, and players sometimes — well, maybe often — fall through the recruiting cracks, making the most of opportunities that suddenly open up.
It happened last year for quarterback Darell Garretson, who put up great senior numbers in 2012, but didn’t get much recruiting activity outside San Jose State.
Utah State came in very late and, after the San Jose State coach that recruited him left for another school, Garretson jumped on the Utah State offer.
An injury during last season opened up an opportunity Garretson would have only had in his wildest dreams.
He not only started for Utah State as a true freshman, but he led them to a bowl victory over a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“I have the confidence I can play at this level to win, and win a second consecutive bowl game,” Garretson said in a phone interview shortly after his bowl win over Northern Illinois, which featured quarterback Jordan Lynch.
Hathcock said he runs into college coaches each spring who admit they’ve been wrong in choosing players.
“The way the NCAA is, they get to kids early,” Hathcock said. “They lock it up. Ninety-five percent of it is based off junior film and nothing else.
“But it’s getting to the point where if they’re offered their junior year, they won’t risk anything and they won’t go all out and play for the team as a senior. They won’t play through a lot of pain. They end up underperforming their senior year.”
Tucson Salpointe Catholic coach Dennis Bene said he has seen that happen over the years with players, if not on his own team then on opposing teams.
“You can see the work ethic fall off,” Bene said. “I’ve seen kids work really hard to get the offers then put on the brakes. They’re still great players. But you can see they’re not really committed. They’re not as hungry as they were.”
After receiver/cornerback Cameron Denson committed to Arizona last spring, Denson cranked up his game to a new level, leading Salpointe to its first Division II championship and becoming azcentral sports’ Big Schools Player of the Year. The same thing happened for Salpointe receiver/cornerback Kaelin Deboskie, who continued to flourish after committing to UA during his senior season.
“That speaks volumes for a kid’s character, when he does have an incredible year after committing,” Bene said. “That’s what Cameron did and Kaelin did. The nucleus of kids who do that want to win a state championship.”
Top 10 state recruits and where they have committed to:
1. Mark Andrews, WR, Scottsdale Desert Mountain — Oklahoma
2. Kyle Allen, QB, Desert Mountain — Texas A&M
3. Jalen Brown, WR, Phoenix Mountain Pointe — Oregon
4. Casey Tucker, OL, Chandler Hamilton — Stanford
5. Qualen Cunningham, DE, Hamilton — Texas A&M
6. Natrell Curtis, OL, Mountain Pointe — Oklahoma
7. Cameron Denson, WR/DB, Tucson Salpointe Catholic — Arizona
8. Andrew Mike, OL, Tucson Sabino — Vanderbilt
9. Trevor Wood, TE, Scottsdale Chaparral — Arizona
10. Tyler Whiley, WR/DB, Chaparral — ASU