UCLA, California and Virginia have become the 15th, 16th and 17th FBS schools to offer football scholarships to Punahou junior Tevarua Tafiti.
The 6-foot-3, 208-pound defensive end already has offers from Hawaii to the Pac-12 to the Big Ten to the Big 12 and ACC, as well as Notre Dame.
The Bruins and Golden Bears made their offers formalized on Tuesday, which saw an explosion of offers across the country, particularly for underclassmen. Virginia followed suit on Wednesday.
The phone began ringing with texts at 3 a.m. on Tuesday. They continued through the morning as he was in virtual classes.
“UCLA offered at around 10:30 (in the morning). Cal offered around 12:30. Virginia just offered a minute ago,” Tafiti said on Wednesday afternoon.
The quick take for Tafiti: “Cal is the Bay Area. UCLA, a lot of Punahou kids go there. Virginia is grit. Just the talk we had, you have to earn things just to get new shirts. (Former Kahuku/Punahou running back) Wayne Taulapapa is there. He’s going to call me soon.”
Tafiti landed on the Star-Advertiser All-State team as a sophomore after a stunning season.
“It’s not surprising at all. These programs want to get on the class of 2022 early, especially with the recruiting landscape changing because of the pandemic,” Punahou interim head coach Leonard Lau said. “Teva is a player that can fit in a lot of defenses. He’s a player that can play multiple positions. He’s so versatile.”
Like other magnetic prospects in the islands, the swell has been recent and powerful in recent days.
“UCLA and Cal, I’ve been talking with them since the end of sophomore season. UCLA said they were just waiting to pull the trigger on Sept. 1. I’m happy with them and Cal. The caliber of education is very high,” Tafiti said. “I think Cal was holding on a little bit, and once UCLA came in, they came two hours later.”
One of Tafiti’s most memorable highlights was a 70-yard fumble return against Campbell in 2019. His acceleration as a defensive lineman was eye-popping.
“He can put his hand on the ground and rush the passer with the best of them, and he can drop into coverage and play the pass with his length and athleticism,” Lau noted.
Tafiti knows a bit about the Bruins’ defense.
“They run a four-front. When I talk to UCLA and Cal, they didn’t really talk to me about the defenses. They’re just recruiting me as an outside (linebacker). I think next week they’ll go over with me what they want,” he said.
He communicates with UCLA assistant coaches Don Pellum and Brian Norwood, the former Radford and Hawaii defensive back.
Assistant coaches Tim DeRuyter, Marcel Yates and Marques Tuiasosopo are the contacts with the Golden Bears.
Virginia was a total surprise. The Cavaliers and Tafiti had first contact on Tuesday.
“I talked to Coach (Shane) Hunter, the inside linebackers coach. He’s recruiting me inside because their defense is a 3-4. One thing he likes is that I can move around and blitz. Their defense is like Punahou. A lot of blitzes inside and off the edge,” said Tafiti, who has a 3.4 grade-point average. “And he likes that my schoolwork is doing good.”
Tafiti’s list of offers is the longest among juniors in the islands: Arizona State, Cal, Hawaii, Louisville, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, Utah, Washington, Washington State, Wisconsin.
“There are some new schools (in contact). Florida State, some Ivy schools. Princeton. Dartmouth. From before, USC and Arizona,” Tafiti said. “I’m trying to keep it open. When the recruiting slows down, then I’ll start breaking it down.”
The combination of excellence in the classroom and on the gridiron is not common.
“When any of our student-athletes at Punahou are given great opportunities to play football at the next level, I know one thing: they invested themselves in the classroom. That’s the first question these college coaches ask me: what kind of students are they? Academics is the ticket for these opportunities to schools like Notre Dame, Stanford, Cal and UCLA who all have high academic standards,” Lau said.
Tafiti’s teammates have been targeted by recruiters in a big way this year. Senior defensive back Kilinahe Mendiola-Jensen has 17 offers and recently committed to UNLV. Senior linebacker Kahanu Kia just received offers from Notre Dame and Stanford. He now has 14 offers. Wide receiver Christopher Paige has seven offers. Offensive lineman Alema Moeava, and DBs Eli Matagi Thompson and Jonah Henry also have offers.
“That’s what I’m most proud of,” Lau said. “It’s very gratifying and I’m so happy for their families as well because I know what kind of sacrifices it takes to give their child these experiences. I know our players are grateful and thankful for these opportunities.”
Tafiti hears his share of advice from family.
“My grandma (Winona Lee) tells me things about school, politics and everything,” he said. “She makes the best prime rib, usually for someone’s birthday or a holiday. My mom (Traci)’s birthday is coming up.”