Ignoring the time-honored urgings of Horace Greeley, Mahelona worked his way further east this fall by first pledging to play at Arizona State in Tempe, Az., then committing to Oklahoma and finally to Tennessee. Assuming his search for a college home ends in Knoxville, the Vols will have one of the nation's best defensive tackle prospects for at least two seasons. He could be granted a third year of eligibility after suffering a broken fibula this fall in game three and missing the rest of Orange Coast's season. He'll petition the NCAA for a medical hardship season.
Mahelona insists this is the last stop on his tour of the United States which also included stops at UCLA, Oregon, Temple and Hawaii on official visits. (Yes, he revisted Hawaii to make sure he wanted to stay on the mainland.)
"When I went to Arizona State I had a lot of fun as far as partying goes, especially since Arizona State is the number one party school in the nation," he told Sooner Insider. "When things settled down I just started to think about what was the best thing for me, and when I considered all things OU was the best for me hands down."
Despite OU's hands down status, Mahelona still took a visit to Hawaii after his commitment to the Sooners before taking his last official visit to UT.
"When I got back from Hawaii I was 100 percent positive that I wanted to be a Sooner," he said. "I went home and went there my freshman year and I saw everything again. I wanted to experience some change and that's what Oklahoma gives me. I want to concentrate on school and football and that is what Oklahoma gives me that great combination of both."
A decision to visit Tennessee followed Mahelona's pronouncement to play for Oklahoma and faster than you can say Swoops, he was saying — Later Sooners.
A visit last weekend sealed the deal for the Vols, as Mahelona came away praising the program along with its fans, facilities and future. But it may have been family that ultimately made the difference, along with a fast friendship he forged with J.T. Mapu who was his host. His brother, Steven, plays for Tusculum College in Greeneville.
"My brother lives there and I thought it would be a good opportunity to see my brother," he said of his decision to visit the Vols. "Plus, Tennessee is a heck of a program and I wanted to check them out. They have a great program, one of the very best in the country. I can understand why they win there."
Mahelona may have stumbled on the truth since it's a nationwide recruiting base that allows the Vols to consistently field high-profile teams. The proof is on the very defensive line that Mahelona aspires to enhance, as it includes players from Germany, Hawaii, Mississippi, Arkansas and Chicago. It's backed up by two starting linebackers from California and one from Louisiana. The secondary has another starter from a California junior college in Gibril Wilson, a safety from New Jersey in Rashad Baker, a corner from Alabama in Jason Allen and, yes, a corner from Tennessee, Jabari Greer. There are valuable backups on UT's defense from Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Certainly, Mahelona will add a lot to what is rapidly becoming a west coast defense.
Mahelona started a year ago as a freshman at Orange Coast and finished the year with 77 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and seven sacks to earn all-conference and all-region honors. (He was selected a First Team all-Mission Conference Central Division and first team all-State Region IV pick.)
In a game against rival Fullerton, he recorded six tackles (3 solo), a sack, and blocked a punt. A week earlier, he had nine solo stops, including five behind the line of scrimmage, and five assists in a loss to Santa Ana. He can, reportedly, bench 500 pounds, squat 550 and he has a 24-inch vertical leap.
"Jesse is as good as any defensive lineman we've had here in 17 years," said Pirates head coach Mike Taylor. "His potential is unlimited. Everybody in the country recruited him."
Mahelona plans to sign with Tennessee in December and enroll in January where he'll be able to complete his rehabilitation program and hopefully participate in portions of spring practice. He could also make the trip for Tennessee's bowl game where he can get a jump start by watching and learning.
"I actually started running on it already," he reports of his injured right leg. "I have the boot on my foot and I am going to start training with this guy from Texas here shortly to get back into shape. He is real good and he will get me back into condition before I report."
Any junior college player would figure to have a real opportunity to earn early playing time. A player of Mahelona's caliber has a realistic chance to become a starter at Tennessee next fall.
"I know for sure that I will be in the rotation, and as far as starting it comes down to how bad I want it," he said when asked about earning playing time for No. 1 Oklahoma. "I am not trying to sound cocky or anything, but I say bring on your biggest, strongest and fastest guy. I am not going to sit on the bench and that is all there is to it, so I am not going to run from competition."
However, it's entirely possible the competition will run from him.