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Baby bro may be best of Kaufusis

McBride sings praises of talented freshman D-end

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When Utah football coach Ron McBride saw the "baby" of the Kaufusi family play football at East High School, he predicted that Jason would be the best out of all of the six football-playing Kaufusi brothers.

Impressive words for a young man whose brother Steve, now a Ute assistant coach, played four years in the NFL; whose brother Rich was first-team All-WAC at BYU; whose brother Henry was "the toughest" of the bunch, "an animal," according to McBride; whose brother Jeff played in the East-West Shrine Game after a Ute career and whose brother Doug, now a Ute junior offensive lineman, is a preseason All-Mountain West first-team pick.

McBride's faith in him several years ago helped give young Jason an identity in this close-knit, much-honored and very special Salt Lake City football-playing family. "I thought coming out of high school he would be the best," McBride says. "He has so much instinct for the game."

"He's told me that a couple of times," says Jason. "I've always thought about it. He always told me, 'They always save the best till last.' That helped me out a lot, picked up my confidence and my self esteem."

He needed the pickup. Recalls baby brother, wearing a big grin, "I was the littlest one, getting picked on every time by the brothers. They outweighed me, and they outsized me in every dimension. My mom was always there to save me," he says. He's now 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, but, "I still haven't found a way" to get the upper hand on them, he says.

Unless, of course, he does become the best of the bunch.

Jason will officially start trying to make McBride right Saturday night at 7 when he becomes one of those rare true freshmen to start his first-ever collegiate game as the Utes entertain Arizona of the Pac-10 in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The youngest Kaufusi brother returned from an LDS mission to Panama City about three months ago and shocked Ute coaches, who expected to redshirt him, by getting into playing condition in time for fall camp. Once projected as a tight end, he surprised the coaches even more by almost immediately seizing the "rush" or "open" defensive end spot from two sophomores who had earned it in spring ball and who had some experience from 1999, Marcus Jones and Dylan Bird.

If Kaufusi does well Saturday, he'll be on his way to proving McBride's words.

He takes on a most-daunting challenge for his first game since East High in 1996. Jason was the 1996 national player of the year for Utah and the Deseret News All-State 4A MVP.

Arizona is Utah's highest-profile non-league opponent since Wisconsin in the '96 Copper Bowl, Rice-Eccles should have a capacity crowd for the first time ever and Kaufusi is replacing last year's MWC Defensive Player of the Year John Frank, the Utes' all-time sacks and tackles-for-loss king who was drafted in the sixth round by the NFL Philadelphia Eagles.

Kaufusi does not seem unnerved by it all.

He wishes his technique were more what he wants out of himself and that he were stronger, things that will come with time, "but deep down inside, I feel ready," he says.

He has "no thoughts" about debuting against the Wildcats, only that, "I haven't played in front of a big crowd, so I don't know what to expect."

And as for being the Utes' next rush end after Frank, he says he never saw Frank play because of his mission, so he doesn't really know what he's replacing. "I don't know if you can replace a legend," Kaufusi says, admitting he's seen film of Frank. "I don't know if you replace somebody with great talent. But there's always room for improvements."

The reason that this true freshman has the chance to take Frank's place is, he says, "Big desire. Having a love for the game, a feel for the game. It comes from deep inside the heart. There's really no other place you can find it."

"Just the smell of it, the grass and the sweat," is enough to get this Kaufusi's heart beating football again. "It's a physical game. You've got to love it," he says.

Of all of his brothers, Jason looked up to Henry the most. "I was like his little shadow," says Jason. "He's the one I talked to the most." That's partly because Henry, the shortest of the bunch and the one McBride says had a mean streak when he played, was the one who was around when Jason was in high school.

"He taught me a lot about the game," says Jason, "just about having the desire and being strong and never giving up, always bringing the second effort and just playing your own game and having fun."

E-mail: lham@desnews.com