There is no perfection in the earthly domain of football, but Rob Crowell is seeing something close to it with the Saint Louis offensive line.
Since the start of calendar year of 2020, arguably the most chaotic in history, the opportunities for three returning starters in the trenches continue to grow. Left tackle Kalan Ellis committed to Syracuse two weeks ago. Right guard Jonah Savaiinaea added to his offer list recently with Arizona State and Syracuse. Right tackle La‘akea Kapoi added to his list, also with Arizona State. Hawaii, UNLV and ‘Cuse are the common denominators for Savaiinaea and Kapoi, both entering their junior seasons.
“I think Kalan, John and La‘akea would all fit fine. They move well. They’ll be a great fit at any of the schools recruiting them,” said Crowell, who coaches the O-line with James Hall.
Crowell is a longtime assistant coach under the ultimate veteran, Ron Lee. Crowell, 43, works at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. His passion is molding pass protectors who have a penchant for downhill destruction in the box. Saint Louis’ four-wide offense has always been explosive under Lee, the offensive coordinator who is now head coach. However, Lee is as apt to run the ball as he is to throw it, and the statistics bear this out. Particularly with a young defensive unit that lost a ton of Division I talent to graduation, the offense may be asked to do more ball control than usual.
“Seven Division I players on just one defense, but the thing about Saint Louis is the culture. Everybody’s so competitive and striving to be the best. The young guys will step up, but we’ll be young on defense, for sure,” Crowell said. “I don’t think it adds more pressure, but I told the line during Zoom meetings where we have the most amount of experience coming back. Our O-line has to be the leaders the way the front seven led last year. They kind of picked the team up. Now, it’s on the O-line.”
Saint Louis has a linchpin at left tackle.
“The Syracuse offensive line looks pretty athletic. Nowadays, that’s what college coaches are looking for. You can’t just be big anymore. They want them to be able to move. Kalan is definitely athletic,” Crowell said of the 6-foot-5, 350-pound basketball and football player. “It’s crazy how well he moves for his size.”
At left guard, a job opportunity is available. With 17 on the O-line depth chart, Crowell expects a major battle for the spot.
“Some guys will compete for that spot, which will be great,” Crowell said.
That open LG spot has top contenders in Po‘okela Kahawai, RJ Sunia and Dacoda Brown, Crowell said.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that the other guys automatically just have their spot. They’re going to have to continue to work hard. That’s the great thing with this group. We have depth and they all work hard. They all compete and push each other to get better.”
The treasure trove of trench talent doesn’t end there.
“Some of our top reserve offensive linemen include Ka‘ena DeCambra, Malu Dupont, Kuhao Gaison, Kai Kamau‘u, Kaili Dancil-Evans, Alexander Litaea-Sniffen, Jake Punivai and Jacob Barona,” Crowell noted. “Our group will have a good amount of underclassmen. I think we’ll only have four seniors total. The core group got a lot of experience last season.”
Ethan Spencer was a backup center with some snaps at left guard in 2019.
“He will probably replace (recently graduated) Matagi Du Pont at center,” Crowell noted.
Savaiinaea, at 6 feet, 3.5 inches and 330 pounds, is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential, he added.
“He’s young as far as playing ball. He’s got a lot of potential and a lot of growth ahead. The sky’s the limit for him. He just started lifting (weights) in January and he was already benching 365,” Crowell said.
Savaiinaea’s family doesn’t have a garage, so he did his weight training in the homes of friends.
“When the COVID thing hit, he was trying to find places to lift. He sent videos to myself and Coach Hall, and jeez, he was benching 365 as a sophomore. He could become one of the greatest to come out of Saint Louis if he keeps working like he’s been working in the classroom,” Crowell said.
Kapoi is 6-4 and 300 pounds now. He was 6-2 and 285 as a starter last year. He has a 3.5 grade-point average. Savaiinaea has a 3.7.
“Best side, same side,” Kapoi said of he and his right-side partner.
His older brother, Alema Kapoi, plays for Hawaii. The younger brother has a max of 465 pounds on the squat.
“I still have to work, keep going,” La‘akea Kapoi said.
As a whole, the Crusaders are loaded at O-line.
“This sophomore class on our offensive line is one of the best I’ve seen in a while. We’ve got about eight or nine sophomores and juniors that could play Division I, but we can only play five,” Crowell said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys with a lot of potential, so they’ll be adding depth and competing. It’s a good group.”
The pandemic has reshaped the process of analysis and recruiting for college coaches. Players have taken much more initiative in reaching out in social media, posting their workout and highlight videos, making contact with potential recruiters.
“This is a whole new dynamic because of this whole thing. The kids can’t really travel and go to camps and see the campuses. They’re really going to have to do their homework on their own to see what schools fit,” Crowell said. “I know that’s what Kalan did. He researched the school, the coaches and the depth. They’re going to have to do that on their own.”
Saint Louis athletes haven’t necessarily flooded the internet with video tweets. It varies from one player to another.
“It doesn’t hurt, obviously. It’s the way it has to be until we get out there and practice, and there’s a season. Posting clips of their own and sending them out on Twitter, sending them to coaches. That’s the way it’s got to be now,” Crowell said. “I see La‘akea posting his workouts now. Jonah and Kalan, not too much. I think Ethan does a little of that. One of our other boys, a guard, he trains with Trench Dawgz, so they do a lot of video. That’s awesome.”
With prep football in the island on hold until 2021, Crowell is cautiously optimistic about maintenance and enforcement of NFHS guidelines.
“We followed the (spring) protocol. Temperature check, sanitize, different position groups working out at a time. Then two days into it, we had to shut down,” he said. “We did the best we could. The parents had to drop them off and go. We had no showering, no locker room access, and weight rooms weren’t open. This was better than staying at home. We had the protocol in place. It’s possible if it’s controlled.”
As a parent, Crowell made the best of the available sites during the first lockdown.
“Before they shut the parks down, I would take my son there and there would be baseball and softball. It definitely helps the kids. Now that they’ve locked down again, it’s not going to help them,” he said.
Saint Louis, like many other schools, will adapt on campus.
“Grades 6 to 12 has distance learning for the first month. Elementary will be in person,” he said.
Some schools, if not all, are taking an enrollment hit due to the economic impact of COVID-19.
“I haven’t heard of anything real massive for us about losing a lot of kids. As far as our offensive line, no, we’ve got everyone coming back,” Crowell said. “Ron does a good job. He calls us every week and makes sure we check on our guys, makes sure they’re enrolled and in school, ready with everything in line. We text the kids and make sure they’re ready. Ron is good about that. He’s good with working with the administrators if somebody has tuition problems, and he gives them a list and tries to work with their families.”
Before Ron and Cal Lee returned to Saint Louis with many of their veteran coaching staff, enrollment was a key issue on campus. That’s why the assistance from scholarship funds provided by former standout student-athletes Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagovailoa is a blessing for current Crusaders.
“The Marcus scholarship, and Tua’s scholarships, those really help. People think Punahou and Saint Louis just give out scholarships, but student-athletes have to pay,” Crowell said. “Back in the day, tuition was $5,000, $6,000. Now it’s $16,000. It’s hard to keep someone there. You have a lot invested in your child if you send him to Saint Louis. I know Kamehameha has a partnership to help Native Hawaiian kids at Saint Louis. That just started a year ago. Punahou gives a lot of financial aid to their student-athletes. The days of the full rides are gone.”