Before Manoa Pikula started his battle for a roster spot at inside linebacker with the Green Bay Packers, there were battles at the kitchen table with his older brothers.
“You’ve got to eat fast. One box of pizza, five boys — you do the math,” Pikula said after Saturday’s rookie orientation practice. “It’s survival of the fittest. Everyone would eat the pizza. I’d just have the crust. I took the scraps. It all paid off.”
After recording 31 tackles as a sophomore backup in 2013, Pikula started eight times as a junior and finished fourth on the team with 49 tackles. He entered his senior season as the defense’s returning leader in tackles but his final campaign was an admitted disappointment. He missed spring practice due to academic issues and was suspended for the final two regular-season games for what he called “BYU stuff.” In 11 games, Pikula recorded 55 tackles, including two sacks and 3.5 for losses.
That put his NFL hopes hanging on a strong pro day. And Pikula (6-1, 234) delivered, with a 4.57 in the 40-yard dash, 24 reps on the 225-pound bench press, a 36.5-inch vertical leap and a 4.23 in the 20-yard shuttle. Pikula’s numbers match up favorably with the Combine workouts of fourth-round pick Blake Martinez (6-2, 237), who ran in 4.71 with 22 reps on the bench, a 28.5-inch vertical and a 4.20 in the shuttle, and fellow undrafted linebacker Beniquez Brown (6-1, 229), who ran in 4.77 with 18 reps on the bench, a 31-inch vertical and a 4.28 in the shuttle.
“That was a big deal because I didn’t have the senior season I thought I would,” Pikula said. “I knew (defensive end) Bronson Kaufusi was going to bring in a lot of scouts. The stage was set; I just had to do my thing. I was banking everything on that, just to show how athletic I am and what I can do and just see if a team would take a shot on me. I’m glad Green Bay did.”
The importance of pro day went beyond his workout. Packers cornerback Robertson Daniel returned to BYU to support his former teammates and struck up a conversation with Pikula.
“I heard nothing but good things about this place,” Pikula said. “Rob Daniel came to my pro day and I was asking him how the league was and he was telling me how they do things over here. I was sold after that. Luckily, I was able to catch their attention at pro day and they were the ones showing me the most love, so I had my mind set.”
So much so that Pikula wasted no time in choosing his free-agent destination after going undrafted. Pikula was aware of Green Bay’s lack of depth at inside linebacker and how the team gives a fair shot to its free agents — with Daniel’s late-season promotion to the active roster sticking in Pikula’s mind.
“Green Bay was the first team to call me and they called me the most before the draft,” he said. “After their last pick, they called me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got something ready for you.’ We called them right when the draft was over. I already had my mind set. I didn’t want to take a chance with another team. I knew I wanted to come out here.”
Pikula’s roots are from Tonga. While he was born in South Jordan, Utah, Pikula's family comes from a small village called Ha'akame on the main island of Tonga. The “Tongan Hammer” was a star football player — he was Scout.com’s eighth-ranked fullback as a two-way starter at Bingham High School, which won back-to-back Utah state championships. His brothers played football, as well, but only Pikula got the opportunity to play in college — and beyond.
Hardened by battles with his brothers, Pikula is ready for the battle he joins in Green Bay, as one of three rookies vying for a role at inside linebacker.
“Man, it’s big,” he said. “I’m the first one in my family. Not even just that. It’s a dream I’ve always had. You watch these guys and it seems so far away. I’m just glad to be here. To be honest, it’s still not real to me to be over here wearing this helmet. I’m just soaking it all in.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.