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BYU’s director of football recruiting: ‘Smother them with love’

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Kalani and I think alike as far as recruiting. His philosophy is to just love the kids. And that’s been a focus of the staff, that if we love them, they will love us back, and it will project itself on and off the field. – Tevita Ofahengaue

When Tevita Ofahengaue and Kalani Sitake were kids living in the same apartment building in Laie, Hawaii, their fathers longtime best friends, neither had any idea they’d one day be on a Division I football coaching staff together in Provo.

But in year two of Sitake’s first job as a Division I football coach at BYU, he’s depending on Ofahengaue’s expertise and connections to bolster the school’s unique recruiting efforts coast to coast as his director of recruiting operations.

Ofahengaue, a former BYU tight end, was the last player taken by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2001 NFL draft, and that earned him the title of “Mr. Irrelevant.”

Now linked with Sitake, the former Kahuku/Laie north shore guys are trying to prepare to beat teams from the SEC and Pac-12. “T,” as he is called, wants to be anything but irrelevant.

Their approach is simple and natural: hit prospects with something tough to ignore.

What is the underlying message in BYU’s football recruiting pitch? Smother them with love, said Ofahengaue. Make that bona fide, natural, genuine love.

“Kalani and I think alike as far as recruiting,” Ofahengaue said Monday. “His philosophy is to just love the kids. And that’s been a focus of the staff, that if we love them, they will love us back, and it will project itself on and off the field.”

With the weekend commitment of Chabot JC corner Tre Greene, BYU’s 2017 recruit dance card is filled. In fact, it is at a negative three with a bunch of defensive linemen coming in the fall. “That’s actually a good thing,” said Ofahengaue

The Sitake approach is to evaluate and offer some prospects very early.

“In 2018, we have 17 scholarships to offer, and that’s with the returned missionaries picking up the other eight. Of that 17, we have 10 that are committed and have seven more that we are going to go after,” Ofahengaue said.

In 2019, BYU has five committed. “Most of those five are defensive linemen, so we won’t go after too many D-linemen. We’ll go after offensive linemen and corners.”

BYU has offered three eighth-graders for 2021 who’ve committed. “Right after we offered, they picked up other offers from Division I schools. That’s a sign we are making good evaluations early. I think our staff does a pretty good job looking at film and projecting the talent,” Ofahengaue said.

Building simple human relationships is the tool.

“Relationships are a huge part of it," Ofahengaue said. "(Sitake) wants to make everything more of a family atmosphere with family relationships. He believes in the same things I do, that nothing is more important than building a connection, making relationships work. If kids can’t get along with the other kids in a system, it won’t work. But if they want to be part of a family and find a role, they find themselves happy.”

Ofahengaue said Sitake’s personal approach is applied to every aspect of recruiting.

“Even on the phone, the approach is to make it personal. I don’t think recruits are used to recruiters, even on the phone, telling them to send their love to their parents and send their love to their family. It’s more about football. They get the sense he really cares. As far as recruiting with Kalani, even if a kid doesn’t come here, we are going to support him and follow his career. Hopefully they’ll be with us.”

When BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe offered Bronco Mendenhall’s job to Sitake when Mendenhall left for Virginia, Ofahengaue was one of the first people he called to gauge interest in joining his staff. “He’s always taken care of me, and I’ve always helped him, even when he was at Utah.”

But Ofahengaue was surprised. He didn’t think BYU would hire Sitake, the NCAA’s first native Tongan Division I football coach. “But they did. When he called me, it was cool.”

When Ofahengaue finished his NFL career at Jacksonville, he wanted to get on BYU’s football staff, even volunteer. “My nephews were on the team and I wanted to be there, but after trying several times, I gave up and went on to other things.”

One of his jobs was working with Tom Lemming as a West Coast recruiting analyst, a job that opened up a lot of connections coast to coast. He also spent five years working as a vice president of the AIGA Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps Polynesian athletes get scholarship opportunities

Sitake hired Ofahengaue to help cast a bigger recruiting net.

“I think it was just going after the big-time kids. He knew I was connected with a lot of the programs around the country. He wanted to recruit a larger spectrum nationally than just the best LDS kids locally. He wanted LDS kids who were in Florida, Texas, California, New Jersey, Missouri, just anywhere there are big or even little football pockets of talent who can be connected. He wanted to make the targets more broad, and go outside the usual kids BYU recruits.”

Sitake’s charge to carefully screen prospects like Mendenhall did remains in place, an administrative directive for player Honor Code compliance.

“I think most of the kids we go after, we’ve already kind of gone through a process of whether they fit or not. With the coaches, they have good instincts, and first impressions really matter," Ofahengaue said.

“If they ask a kid how their mother is and they kind of answer like, ‘Oh, she’s OK, I don’t know,’ then coach is unsure of how things are at home and that is a red flag.

“Kalani wants kids who respect their parents and have that structure because if they don’t follow what their parents want them to do, they’ll have a tough time taking counsel from a coach, not that we’re predetermining things, but it gives us an idea of what he’s like. He tells them if they don’t listen to their parents, then they probably won’t listen to a coach.”

Approaching 16 months on the job, Ofahengaue believes BYU’s talent has increased.

“Our kids look bigger, faster and stronger. You see it in the training room. They have fewer injuries and more muscle. After a week of a coaching clinic and two open practices, people have come up and told us they’ve notice bigger size and speed. In our Pro Day you saw some of the numbers posted by our players and you saw improvement from the work they did.”

The director of recruiting operations says his new job has bowled him over.

“I am having a blast. Sometime my wife comes in and visits and says, ‘This isn’t a real job, you guys are having too much fun. When do you guys ever get work done?’”

Ofahengaue said a 2018 recruit was in the office with Ty Detmer the other day and everyone was joking and laughing and having a good time. Detmer’s wife, Kim, came in and looked surprised at the festivity in progress. “When do you work?”

“Obviously Kalani gets the job done and when it’s done we have fun. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a dream come true, a lot better than I expected. It is so rewarding seeing some of these kids being in the red zone with a 1.8 GPA, and then going on to make the honor roll. It is very satisfying.”

This is BYU recruiting, circa 2017.