From Division I college recruits to aspiring middle-school phenoms, the golden arms of Oahu turn to Keli‘i Tilton.
Alaka‘i Yuen. Cameron Friel. Jayden Maiava. Blaine Hipa. John-Keawe Sagapolutle. Kekahi Graham. Whether it was prior to the pandemic or deep in the midst of it, gifted passers always went to the guru — and his QB Grind training process — to elevate their skill sets.
Yuen was named the No. 2 JUCO quarterback of 2021 by ESPN this week. After committing to Fresno State recently, the former Moanalua standout credited Tilton.
“I learned a lot from Coach Keli‘i Tilton. I go to him almost every day now. He helped me with my reads and throwing mechanics,” Yuen said.
The work is endless, which makes Tilton happy. When Graham, a junior at Saint Louis, won MVP honors at a combine in Texas recently, he returned home and kept the grind going. Graham shouted out his Saint Louis coaches, including the godfather of quarterback gurus, Vinny Passas. He also shouted out Tilton.
“Coach Keli‘i Tilton tweaked my body mechanics,” Graham said. “I’m going to work out with him today.”
Graham’s combination of passing skills and agility are prized.
“Kekahi is a different animal with how he approaches things. His father (Gery) does things to the end. When he told me they went plant-based, I’ve seen a difference in the kid. He didn’t skip a beat,” Tilton said. “Kahi is one of those kids who’s grinding every day. Kahi can step in and play the No. 1 role (at Saint Louis). AJ (Bianco) is definitely a good catch for Saint Louis. He passes the eye test, for sure. Their line is the most experienced group on the team.”
Maiava and Hipa competed in the Elite 11 last fall despite the postponement and, eventually, cancellation of football season. Tilton was there with them on the trip to Oregon. Maiava later committed to UNLV and has since transferred back to Las Vegas for senior year.
Hipa, formerly the starter at Campbell, is flourishing at Chandler (Ariz.). He departed in the spring to have a senior year in 2021-22. Hipa has offers from Hawaii and Tennessee.
“Blaine came back (this summer) and we worked out with some of the Campbell guys down at Manana (District Park). He definitely misses home, but I think he made the right move. Jayden, the same thing. We didn’t know if we were going to have a (football) season,” Tilton said.
The technical and mechanical aspects are intertwined. Tilton’s arc as a teacher of the position began as a student of the game. Tilton was a prolific passer at Kalaheo and still ranks in the school’s top 10 single-game passing yardage totals at No. 5 and No. 8.
“We’ve been fortunate. I get to work with these kids. I learn as much as they do. It’s a constant learning process for the boys and myself. We’re constantly tweaking things. Blaine came back and the first thing he said is, ‘Watch where my slot is. I don’t think it’s in the right place.’ So we had to tweak that for a day or two. The kids trust and it’s never a settled thing. That’s the fun part for me. They trust the process,” Tilton said.
Tilton has enjoyed the process that Yuen experienced, from sitting out of football for more than a year, then to two junior colleges before moving on to the Mountain West Conference. The same pride is there for Hipa, who also has a wide-open future.
“Coaching for Campbell opened the door for me to train quarterbacks. I trained Blaine since sixth grade. Alaka‘i started at the same time. He was going into his senior year (at Moanalua),” Tilton recalled. “I was bummed when Blaine went (to Arizona), but DJ (Darren Johnson of Campbell) knew the kid’s situation. Junior year is very important for these kids who are being looked at. I feel for kids like Blaine and Jayden. They lost that junior year. They’ve been working hard.”
Onosai Salanoa, a standout wide receiver with the All-Blacks Crusaders Pylon and tackle football teams, trains with Tilton. He will be a freshman at Saint Louis this fall.
Even basketball players have been impacted by Tilton, who was an assistant coach at Kailua under Wally Marciel. Former standout scorer Everett Torres-Kahapea had this takeaway from the coach.
“Coach said both winning and losing is a habit. Train and practice hard everyday, and you’ll create winning habits. Take your training and practice for granted and you’ll create losing habits,” Torres-Kahapea said in 2017.
Learning to take precautions was a big part of the learning curve for coaches like Tilton who train athletes year-round. Tilton became so familiar with the maze and surroundings that he became a proponent for Safe Sports Hawaii during the spring. He was one of several coaches on a forum panel hosted by State Rep. Andria Tupola, exploring and executing practice plans within protocols.
The chemistry between coaches like Tilton and Kawe Johnson is highly productive. Johnson, a former two-way playmaker at Kahuku, continues to train skill-position athletes. Like Tilton, Johnson is a former Campbell assistant coach who grew to be so busy training individual athletes that high school coaching became difficult to squeeze Into the schedule.
“Kawe and I, through COVID, he and I got busier,” Tilton noted. “Nobody had anything, so they were calling Kawe and I, so we still trained.”
Tilton’s day job hasn’t changed. He works with Marciel at H & W Food Service as a sales rep.
“It’s like I have two full-time jobs,” he said.
A key difference now is Tilton has eased up on camps.
“We were going to the outer islands, as well, until COVID slowed that down. We went to do camps on the mainland a few times,” he said.
Hawaii’s surplus of elite linemen and defensive players made the islands a destination for college recruits going back decades. Hawaii as a talent pool of quarterbacks has proven sustainable.
“There’s a group of guys out there doing an unbelievable job with these kids. Before, they had to go away to get trained. It’s good to see that we can keep these kids planted, saving money and working on their technique and mechanics,” Tilton said. “When I played, there was nobody. Unless you were going to Saint Louis, the invite wasn’t there.”
The evolution of the position has been a major factor.
“There are so many guys who are smaller, but proving they can play at that high level in the NFL. Now quarterbacks are working window throws, sliding into areas and understanding where their linemen are. Reading not only the secondary, but front line, able to maneuver their way through the pocket windows and make these throws. That’s why smaller-sized quarterbacks are getting their opportunities,” Tilton said.
The progress and development of so many skill-position players includes defensive backs and wide receivers. Titus Mokiao-Atimalala was huge get for UCF, which had already benefited from starting QB Dillon Gabriel, the former Star-Advertiser all-state player of the year from Mililani. Recent Punahou graduate Kilinahe Mendiola-Jensen collected 20 scholarship offers as a cornerback.
“There are great coaches here and it’s a testament that the coaches here go to the camps up on the mainland and come back. In addition to guys like Cal Lee (of Saint Louis), we have coaches that can compete at the mainland level. Rod York, DJ, OIA coaches that are making noise out there. It says a lot to the learning process, going out there and getting knowledge,” Tilton said.
For quarterback coaches, from Mouse Davis and June Jones down the line, mastering the basics remains the core.
“That’s the importance of repetition. Jayden de Laura’s senior year, (Saint Louis) ran the same play four times in a row against us at Campbell. I said, that’s the fourth time you ran that play and he said, ‘We’ll run it six times if we need to.’ It’s just reps and executing it as long as you can,” Tilton said.
The workouts on the west side could have slowed down, but the influx of young talent won’t allow it. Tilton stays busy because the demand outweighs everything.
“I’ve had kids training at 6, 7. My youngest is Mark Veneri’s son. He’s 9 now,” Tilton said.
Just don’t expect much from the coach anywhere but on the field.
“Social media is fickle. I just want coaches to see what the kids’ work ethic is,” Tilton said. “I told my boys, I’m never going to hype you up.”