Undersized at only 6-foot-1, Tuani nevertheless showed that he could compete with the very best on the FBS level of competition during the 2008 season, earning 2008 ECAC Rookie-of-the-Year honors en route to leading the Midshipmen in tackles for a loss. A former wrestler who plays with outstanding leverage and undeniable quickness, Tuani was recently described by Navy defensive line coach Dale Pehrson as having the potential to become the best Navy defensive end of the last decade. I caught up with Tuani recently, and got the scoop on his first year at the Academy and his plans for his sophomore season.
On his recruitment during high school:
"It started off after I had a pretty good junior season. Going into my senior season I started to get some looks, but because of my size I didn't get the heavy Division I looks like some people. Arkansas State was talking to me for a little while and Ole Miss was talking to me for a little while but then they stopped recruiting me, so I gave that up. After that, Division I-AA schools like Furman started to recruit me. Furman was my number one choice at the time, but coach Ingram – who was previously at Bucknell and had contacted me earlier – got the job at Navy and started to recruit me. When I was on my weekend visit at Furman my high school coach called and told me to try to hold off on committing. I was like ‘are you sure?' and he said ‘I'm pretty sure,' and told me to give it one more week. So I told the Furman coach I wanted to explore my options a little bit and to give me another week. That next week I talked to coach Ingram and he told me to come up for a visit, so I flew up and got a chance to talk to the coaches. I thought it was a pretty good place - especially for Division I football - so I basically just couldn't pass it up."
On what he was attracted to at Navy:
"The whole package. The football program had developed a winning streak for the last six or seven years, so I felt good about the chance to go to a bowl game and that type of stuff. But it was also the great academic programs, and the fact that when I graduate I have a guaranteed job in serving our country and our world. So there were a lot of good things."
On the reason he was able to start as a freshman at Navy:
"I guess it was my mentality. My dad raised me and would tell me that ‘whenever you do something, don't be complacent with not being first.' So coming up here I knew I just wanted to play. I didn't think I was going to play my first year but I ended up going all out at practice and worked out hard. Some of the other freshmen guys were actually on the same level but I don't know if they had that mindset to keep trying to push themselves. I think maybe some guys would say to themselves that they weren't going to get to be on the field so it was no use working so hard…But I just kept telling myself that I was going to get on the field and I was going to keep working hard. That was my mentality; to keep working, working, working and pushing forward. So when [Michael] Walsh went down they called me up and said we need you."
On what was going through his head when Walsh was injured against Rutgers:
"At the time I knew he got hurt, but I didn't know how serious the injury was until after the game. The coaches didn't let me know I was going to play as much as [Walsh did], but they did let me know I would probably play more. They didn't say I was going to start though, but then once we got to the Wake Forest game – after our meeting and before we got to the stadium – coach told me I would start. He said ‘don't worry about anything, just go out and play,' and I was just like ‘uh, wow…'"
His feelings during his first collegiate start against Wake Forest:
"At first I was a little nervous because obviously it was a big game…they were ranked 16th [in the AP Poll] I think. So I was like ‘wow this is going to be amazing.' As soon as I hit the field all those feelings went away though. After the first play I just kept playing, and we started to do really good on defense with stopping them and getting turnovers and everything. So I felt like I could play on the field all of the time, and that is what the coaches asked and entrusted me with."
On plebe summer and whether or not it "wore" him out:
"Not at all. I was just glad to get away, because that was definitely a challenge for me that I had never ever scene before. Football was something I could recognize, so I was happy to be on the field."
On being named ECAC Rookie-of-the-Year:
"It was a great honor. I did not expect to win any awards or anything like that. I was just trying to do the best I could to help my team out. When I found out I was actually standing on watch - which you know all of us freshmen and sophomores have to do – and someone just came up to me and was like ‘hey congratulations on your award.' I had no idea what it was…I thought it was something with the Naval Academy. Then I went online on the Navy website and saw it up there with all the schools on the east coast and all the coaches who voted. I was just like ‘wow, this is really a big deal.' I got to go to a banquet and everything and it was a great honor."
On how he compensates on the field for his lack of size:
"My speed and strength. I've definitely gotten stronger over the years, and I think it surprises people given my size. I've just kept working out, and I've always been one of the strongest defensive linemen on any of my teams and one of the fastest as well. I just use my other attributes on the field to help make up for the lack of my size."
On naysayer who question his ability because of his size:
"I just kind of block that out and go out and play my game. The critics are always going to say this or say that, but I'm the one who is going to effect the game in which I play. So I just try to block it out."
On his relationship with his fellow defensive linemen:
"I am really close with all of those guys. We talk all the time and stuff like that. We haven't even really discussed stuff about who is going to start or things like that. All of our linemen are going to play. If Walsh gets the start I still expect to play…but like I said we are tight as a unit and we can talk about anything. They were especially there for me during my freshman year, and if I ever end up getting in trouble with anything I can talk to them about my struggles and just be comfortable with them."
On his wrestling background and whether or not it helps him as a defensive lineman:
"I think so. At times in wrestling I would have to wrestle heavier guys and everything. So it helps you with footwork and stamina and mental things. I think it definitely helped."
On being Student Body President at Brentwood Academy:
"I had a lot of responsibility, especially during the [football] season. But I used it to advantage, and got a lot of experience with leading. I think it helped with the military side here at the Academy. It was fun and interesting."
On his expectations for 2009:
"I've put on a little more weight. I am weighing about 260 now, so I am definitely getting stronger and still working on my speed. I've had some injuries with my ankles but everything is feeling good right now. I think with the defensive team we have right now we should be really solid [in 2009]. I know I'm going to play my heart out for our guys and they are going to play their hearts out for me, so we are going to do some big things this year."
Thoughts on future Navy player and fellow Brentwood alum Barry Dabney:
"He has to go to NAPS first, but as long as he keeps his head up and doesn't let anything bother him I think he'll be able to play during his freshman year. With Barry's size and his speed and his strength – as long as he comes in and plays with tenacity – I think he'll definitely see the field his freshman year."
On his future Service Selection:
"At this point I want to go Marines. I just know the Marines are the best and the baddest, and that is definitely where I want to be."