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The Huskers want recruits from Hawaii. They might get one Saturday
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The Huskers want recruits from Hawaii. They might get one Saturday

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Weather on the Hawaiian Islands hasn't been perfect this week. One day, the temperatures didn’t even crack 80 degrees.

Rod York gives a chuckle as he realizes how ridiculous that must sound to Midwesterners still shoveling out from the latest snowstorm. The football coach at Mililani High — 20 miles north of Honolulu — is an island lifer. He grew up there and walked on at the University of Hawaii in the mid-1990s.

York had no motivation to leave home, but he has seen that to be less and less true among the state’s current generation of football talent. The best player on his team, linebacker Wynden Ho’ohuli, may very well choose to play at Nebraska. He will reveal his decision Saturday afternoon as part of a series of college announcements broadcast by NBC.

Why would Ho’ohuli journey nearly 3,800 miles from home to play in Lincoln? That’s the wrong question, York says. It’s not about pitching kids on colder-climate programs like Nebraska, but proving to those schools that Hawaii has talent worth pursuing.

“I don’t think it matters for our kids,” York said. “They want to go to wherever is the best fit. I don’t think it’s a hard sell. Nebraska’s just got to offer Hawaii guys and they may get more guys.”

The Huskers under Scott Frost have paid attention, extending scholarships to at least 23 prospects from the state spanning the 2019 through 2022 classes. Defensive line coach Tony Tuioti — who was a high school coach there in the early 2000s after playing for Hawaii — recruits the area.

So far, no bites. The last high school players to sign with NU were offensive lineman Toniu Fonoti and defensive lineman Junior Tagoa’i in the 1999 class. More recent Hawaiians on the roster were O-lineman Cornealius Fuamatu-Thomas (a junior college transfer in 2004-05) and receiver Kanawai Noa (a California transfer in 2019).

That prep streak could end with Ho’ohuli, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound consensus four-star linebacker York called a “silent assassin” for the way he instinctively and methodically breaks up plays like he knew the calls. NU has also long been in contact with still-uncommitted 2021 D-lineman Zhen-Keith Sotelo of nearby Kapolei. Among NU’s 2022 targets is quarterback AJ Bianco of powerhouse St. Louis School.

Tuioti said on a radio appearance earlier this month that Nebraska has “some traction” with Hawaii players. But it has to be the right situation for both parties.

“Once we land one, then the pipeline’s established and we’ll try to continue to build on that,” Tuioti said.

College recruiting in Hawaii has “most definitely” picked up in recent years, York said. One reason Ho’ohuli and others don’t consider going to Nebraska a stretch is because they’ve seen friends and teammates thrive around the country — not just at West Coast schools like USC, Utah and Oregon.

St. Louis School — where Ho’ohuli played through his sophomore year before transferring to Mililani — sent prospects in the 2020 class to Notre Dame, Air Force, Wisconsin and Michigan, among others. It had a 2021 offensive lineman sign with Syracuse.

Mililani also helped “open the doors wide” to a variety of players, York said. Frost recruited quarterback McKenzie Milton — who eventually earned Heisman Trophy votes — to UCF in 2016. The school more recently sent QB Dillon Gabriel to UCF in 2019. St. Louis produced eventual Alabama and Miami Dolphins star Tua Tagovailoa. It was also the starting point for Marcus Mariota, who was another Frost QB recruit to Oregon in 2011.

“You go to the parks here, you’ve got 20 quarterbacks now,” York said. "Everyone wants to play quarterback because of those guys. More people are believing in the type of athletes Hawaii has, not just linemen but the skill positions. More and more of our guys are getting out there.”

The pandemic has put a major damper on that momentum.

Hawaii was one of a few states that didn’t play high school football this fall. It may not have a season at all — York guesses it won’t — and just this week announced the cancellation of all traditional winter sports.

High school coaches can’t put players through drills, York said, but they can teach a group of them as students in his classroom. It’s a depressing time that has damaged exposure for middle-tier prospects in the state. He names a former linebacker of his, Darius Muasau, who just completed a year as a first-team All-Mountain West player at Hawaii. Now considered a Power Five-type of player, the undersized 6-1 defender had just one offer out of Mililani.

“If Darius was a (prep) senior this year, he wouldn’t get offered,” York said. “Those guys, it killed their recruiting process.”

So the workouts continue, York said, even if players don’t know what they’re working toward right now. Ho’ohuli has been leading team practices this fall. He’ll be on the national-television stage Saturday, possibly picking up a Nebraska hat as the latest example of a state with talent that’s willing to travel.

“Football’s big over here — about as big as it is in Nebraska and Texas,” York said. “You look at all the guys that come out of Hawaii, we got a lot of guys coming out and producing.”​

Signee Spotlights: Get to know the players in Nebraska football's 2021 recruiting class

The "Signee Spotlight" provides all the information you need on the newest batch of Huskers, including rankings, evaluations and a look at how they landed at Nebraska.

Omaha World-Herald: Big Red

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