Hopoi fully qualified

Manase Hopoi has never done anything half-way, on the football field or off of it. That's why there was more than just a hint of irony when the high school linebacker from Sacramento, California was admitted to the University of Washington in 2001 as an academic partial-qualifier.

"It's difficult to label someone a partial qualifier when english isn't spoken in the home," said UW Defensive Line Coach Randy Hart. "It's crazy. We wouldn't have recruited him if we didn't think he would make it. When a number of high school coaches recommend a guy, you can't go wrong. And the more we saw the more we liked him. I knew he was a good football player, but the more you got to know him and the more you talked to him you understood that he could succeed."

Hopoi's recruitment, spearheaded by former UW quarterbacks coach Steve Axman, looked to be a possible fool's errand in the beginning because of the cultural hurdles Manase would have to overcome. His family moved to the United States from Tonga just three years before he was born.

"He came here knowing he wanted to graduate," said Hart. "That's why it's a misnomer that he wasn't interested in academics. He's always wanted to learn, and you aren't talking about a guy who learned to become student when he got here. He's going to graduate in four years, and a lot of normal students don't do that."

In fact, Hopoi is on track to graduate this spring. He finished his major requirements in the winter and will walk this June with a degree in American Ethnic Studies. "I took one step at a time," Hopoi told Dawgman.com. "It was a blessing to be able to get to school here and I worked hard the first two years on academics. It's exciting when you get it all done with."

The biggest reason the Huskies wanted Hopoi was because he was a flat-out football player. Hart admits that he didn't immediately see Manase as the 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive lineman that he is today. "I'd like to say that you know that sort of stuff, but you don't," said Hart. "Some guys never put a pound on.

"But you can always find a place for a football player."

"When I was a linebacker my coach (Grant High School Football Head Coach Mike Alberghini) felt like I was a good hitter and tackler, so he wanted to put me in a position where I could make plays," said Hopoi. "I'm pretty good with my hands, so the coaches here put me on the d-line to get to the quarterback and make plays. I just like playing football and helping the team out."

And despite a 1-10 season at Washington, Hopoi was one of the shining lights of an otherwise dismal season, racking up 23 tackles for loss. Manase became the player Hart could count on to fill a hole when other defensive linemen like Donny Mateaki and Dan Milsten went down with injury.

"The guy that became 'Mr. Flexible' was Manase," said Hart. "And it's going to benefit him down the road."

"We didn't work our best, our hardest," Hopoi said, reflecting back on 2004's botched season. "I didn't want to leave at that point, especially as a dawg. You wouldn't want to leave after a 1-10 season. I'm just trying to help the team, trying to make it back to the Rose Bowl."

And listening to Hart, he knew Manase wasn't ready to leave for the lure of the NFL, even though he would have been eligible to do so. He hadn't fulfilled his plan. "I always counted on him being here because that's been his plan, and he's never come off that plan," said Hart. "I don't think we ever really discussed it. I think he knew that he could improve himself. I think he had that feeling the entire time. And in his case he's going to benefit from that."

"I didn't think I was mentally and physically ready to get to the next level," added Hopoi. "I wanted to be physically and mentally ready to play. I'm trying to correct some of the mistakes I have and get better. Last year I got better than the year before, so this year I have to continue to improve. Last year I slacked off a lot on plays that I should have made, so this year when plays come at me I have to make all of them."

Hart is also looking for the experience Hopoi has gained on and off the field to manifest itself in Manase taking a greater leadership role on the team. "He's improved as a leader and he has to continue that improvement," said Hart. "We're hungry for leadership."

"I can lead by example and also by talking and communicating and asking questions myself," added Hopoi, who took a couple of business classes this past winter to get himself acquainted to what it's going to take to succeed in the business world. "A good leader has good communication with the people he's with, and I want to be a good team member."

Hopoi is looking to do an internship this summer and then go back to school in the fall to move toward a goal of getting into real estate. "If everything goes right I'll take a quarter off after this fall and come back in the spring to benefit me in the future after football," he said.

But football is in his present, and Hart believes that his best play is still ahead of him. "I'm still waiting to see that," said Hart. "This is his year to show us the kind of football that he's capable of being. He's done a good job, but in my way of thinking he's got to step up and have a dominant year."

Hopoi has had the benefit of one position coach during his stay at Montlake, so when the Tyrone Willingham era sprung into action this spring, he was more comfortable with the situation than most.

"We're playing more as a team," he said when asked about the differences he's seen in this spring compared to previous springs. "We're running everywhere. Every period we're running. We run to the ball, even the offense has to run to the ballcarrier. We're like one unit. Last year we had a lot of guys that really didn't run to the ball. It's a part of playing football and being a part of this year. You have to run to the ball, make plays. A lot of things can happen, and whoever is there can make a play, get a turnover.

"We all need to play as a unit and play hard-nosed Husky football. How we used to play. Like Coach Willingham tells us, the 'W' used to be a feared symbol of the west coast. We're trying to get back to that mentality, back to that era."

And now that the label of 'partial qualifier' can be peeled away from the legacy of Manase Hopoi, he can go back to what he's always done - giving everything a full effort.


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