Keni Kaufusi: "Completely Off The Radar"

One of the most intriguing untold stories of the 2008 Utah football recruiting season might be that of Keni Kaufusi, a Salt Lake Tribune First-Team All-State defensive tackle from Cottonwood HS who, in just the last week, has gone from a highly coveted JC-bound recruit to a probable Division I academic qualifier – with as many as seven major colleges now hot on his 13th hour recruiting heels.

Keni Kaufusi, a 6-foot-2.5-inch, 275-pound defensive tackle prospect who runs an impressive 4.8 forty, was also a Second-Team All-State selection by The Deseret News. In his only season at Cottonwood as a senior, he registered 57 tackles, nine sacks and 20 tackles for a loss as a nose guard. He also boasts a 26-inch vertical, squats 465 pounds, has a bench press max of 335 pounds, and cleans 305 pounds.

Though BYU is interested in Kaufusi, who is LDS, they have not offered a scholarship because they no longer have any unallocated 2008 scholarships remaining. It was widely assumed and earlier communicated to his BYU recruiter Brandon Doman – by Keni's proctor parents (Lori and Steve Martinez) and his high school coaches – that Kaufusi was not close to being academically qualified.

"Coach Doman was at one of Cottonwood's games this season and he was really interested and asking about Keni," Steve Martinez recalled. "He said, ‘Are you absolutely positive he's not going to qualify, because we rate him as the best defensive tackle in the state right now?' He made me promise that Keni was not going to make it because he wanted to make sure he would be not miss out on recruiting him. I told him there's no way he'll qualify and he'll go the JUCO route."

Keni, whose mother is a first cousin to BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi, attended BYU's Junior Day last Saturday with Steve Martinez and Keni's younger brother (same birth mother) John Martinez, a Cottonwood junior last season who is considered one of the most coveted 2009 offensive line recruits in the country. John was adopted by Steve and Lori when he was two days old.

Keni confirmed in a frank and revealing interview with TBS that he was "very impressed" with BYU's facilities and especially with head coach Bronco Mendenhall's no-holds-barred but sincere presentation.

"What Coach Mendenhall said really hit me," Kaufusi confided. "I mean, it touched me. He was honest and straight-up and said BYU was not for everyone. He told us about a lot of demanding expectations when you go there. I'm afraid I might slip up and I don't want to get into trouble. I just don't want to put myself in a situation where I might break the rules. Even though they haven't offered me, I don't think it will be a good fit for me."

Kaufusi's fears are well founded. Both he and Steve Martinez pointed out that he has a checkered past with repeated run-ins with the law that he has learned valuable life lessons from – having been in and out of juvenile detention and an Ogden group home for at-risk youth between the 9th-to-11th grades.

Kaufusi lived with the Martinez family from the fourth through eighth grades, where he excelled in school and was rarely in trouble.

After he returned to live with his Tongan family, he got into trouble "hanging out with the wrong kids."

Martinez added that Kaufusi achieved honor roll status in the seventh grade with five A's and 2 B's, but as soon as he returned to his Polynesian family and friends, some of them teased him about his grades.

"Some jokingly teased Keni and referred to him as an Oreo; brown on the outside, white on the inside. I call it Poly-kryptonite," Steve Martinez said. "Some of these Polynesian athletes are fast, quick, strong and they simply forget or don't want to go to class. The sad thing is the kids joke about it among themselves."

Martinez knows a little about the sensitive topic he refers to. He has lived in Utah most of his life and has coached numerous Polynesian athletes in various sports for a number of years.

It was not until Kaufusi returned to live with the Martinez family as a senior that he turned his life around in the classroom, at home and on the football field.

"Keni finally gets it. His life has been transformed in the last year. He's finally dialed in" as far as his potential as a student and football player, Martinez said. "He's come to it the long way round."

"He has been absolutely golden for the last year or so," Martinez said, also pointing out that Keni has also been especially protective of his younger brother John.

"For as intermittent as their relationship has been, they're really close, but they're as competitive as anything in the weight room and on the practice field," Martinez continued.

Proctor mom Lori Martinez adds that younger brother John "idolizes Keni. They get along really well. Keni watches out over his brother and wouldn't let anything bad happen to John."

Interestingly, Kaufusi's recruiting picture completely changed in the last two weeks when Cottonwood offensive coordinator, Scott Cate, who separately oversees the Cate Family Foundation to help disadvantaged local athletes with their sports-related endeavors, updated his academic record and determined there was now a strong likelihood Kaufusi would meet NCAA Clearing House guidelines by the end of the school year.

Cate's foundation put together Kaufusi's impressive highlight tape "at warp speed" and sent it express mail last Wednesday to 10 college coaches he personally knew and trusted. The very next day, all 10 schools called after viewing the tape and expressed immediate and strong interest in Kaufusi.

Cate told TBS that "Keni is one of the best I've ever seen play at defensive tackle. I promised him earlier this year if he would take his classes seriously, I would do everything I could to help get him a Division I scholarship offer. He got through all the hurdles a couple of weeks ago. He's been just terrific. He's really bright; he was just missing time [in school]."

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and defensive coordinator Gary Anderson acted immediately the day they viewed Kaufusi's tape and met with Cates, Steve Martinez and Kaufusi that same day (Thursday) and offered Kaufusi his first Division I scholarship. Kaufusi unofficially tripped to Utah when they played New Mexico this past season, and met the coaches and toured the facilities.

Referring to his meeting and offer from Utah coaches Whittingham and Anderson, Kaufusi said he has known Coach Anderson since he was a young boy and admired him.

Utah faces its toughest battle right now for Kaufusi's binding commitment from cross-border neighbor Colorado.

Colorado head coach Dan Hawkins also acted quickly when apprised of Kaufusi's upgraded academic situation. He visited with Kaufusi at Cottonwood this past Monday and also offered a scholarship. Indeed, Keni and Steve Martinez will fly Friday to Colorado for an unofficial weekend recruiting visit. Division I colleges cannot officially host recruits until they take either the ACT or SAT test. Kaufusi did not need to take either test for junior college admission and is now scheduled to take the ACT exam on February 9.

"I've lived in Utah my whole life and I kind of want to explore different places. I'm kind of leaning toward Colorado right now," Kaufusi told TBS Wednesday night. He added, however, that could also change after he meets Thursday with Kansas State defensive line coach, Ricky Rahne, who is making a hastily-arranged recruiting trip to Cottonwood specifically to recruit Kaufusi. There is a possibility they may also offer him as well.

Referring to the two schools that have offered so far, Martinez, a Utah graduate, said "Utah would be a great place for him to play." He said the Utes have placed 11 defensive linemen in the NFL in the last seven years.

Colorado, he said, plays in a BCS conference with fine facilities and an excellent defensive line coach who also played in the NFL. "I think Keni might mature faster growing away from the family. It might be better if he gets out of town."

Martinez was quick to add "it's totally Keni's call."

Other colleges expressing strong interest now in Kaufusi include Oregon, Oregon State and Oklahoma State, who also told Cate and Martinez they don't have available scholarships because of his late availability. Some of these program's coaches urged Kaufusi and Martinez not to commit to any school on National Letter of Intent Signing Day next Wednesday (February 6), holding out the possibility they may have available scholarships as early as Thursday – based on the number of legally binding signed commitments they receive on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Kaufusi remains focused right now on completing all his academic requirements to graduate on time. In addition to a full slate of classes, he is also taking an additional eight BYU correspondence packet courses. He currently boasts a 3.5 GPA in his required core classes. Additionally, Kaufusi's coaches are now working closely with the NCAA Clearing House to ensure he meets and passes all its requirements.

Martinez added: "As big and strong as John is, Keni always had more athletic talent. He's got the fastest first two steps you'll see. Because of his academics before, he was off the radar completely for DI schools."

On the field, Coach Cate noted that Kaufusi "is as good a football player as I've seen. He's lightning-quick off the ball; his leverage and pad level is the best I've ever seen or been around. He's what everybody wants [in a defensive tackle].

"He's going to be a good college kid that's going to graduate. There's nobody in the state that I rate better than him," he commented.

Cate concluded: "Keni has beaten major odds to get where he is now. Steve and Lori opened their hearts and home and they have been a great influence on him. They have been so dedicated to helping him get a second chance."

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