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Dick Harmon: In BYU D-coordinator Tuiaki's world, what do football and Bruce Lee martial arts have in common?

PROVO — Mention mixed martial arts and the late legendary fighter and actor Bruce Lee, and BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s eyes light up. He zeroes in on you like you just dumped a gold brick in his pocket.

Tuiaki really gets into this stuff. And he likes to apply his experiences as an MMA fighter to football, using its philosophy and techniques to improve hand-eye coordination, footwork, balance and focus.

Right after Tuiaki finished playing football at Southern Utah, he took up MMA fighting to earn extra money, following in the footsteps of his brother Lolo. He trained and studied jujitsu, muay thai, boxing, submission wrestling and kali.

In his fighting days, Tuiaki was like a freight train delivering boxcars of pain. He was an aggressive fighter and chased fast knockouts. His fighting name was Ogre 6. Toward the end of his fighting days, he grew more enamored with the philosophy and artistry of the sport and became a disciple of Lee, who still has a cult following 40 years after his death.

It was the icon Lee who said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Tuiaki loves this stuff.

“I think football and hand-to-hand combat are a lot alike,” said Tuiaki speaking of MMA and football similarities. “Absolutely, if we are talking philosophies and techniques.”

Tuiaki was Utah’s defensive line coach when the Utes led the nation in sacks before he left for Oregon State and then arrived at BYU as defensive coordinator.

“Everybody's seen Bruce Lee’s work on the wooden doll. As a D-lineman, things aren’t always just linear. Everything's got to be a little bit more 360.”

Tuiaki is referring to the speed work Lee did on a wooden practice dummy. He’d quickly attack up, under, at the side, on the top in repetitive hand and foot movements, working on his speed, aim, balance, delivery and exactness.

“You've got to make it fit. You basically have a hand entry, to a split entry with your hands and then an outside entry, and all that kind of changes in the way that you do things. I think in teaching the guys and having them understand certain principles and using philosophy from different types of arts, you'll really start to get a pretty good feel for what a defensive lineman does.”

Tuiaki said his brothers all love football and talk about it all the time. Often one of his brothers will say, “Hey, dude, you are talking Chinese now.” He says, “It’s just what we do as coaches. And we’ll get a little bit deeper into it as far as talking technically and some of the things we’re looking for and what applies to martial arts.”

Of course, there are no kicks to the head or tripping in football. Kung fu is not allowed. But perfecting the movement and enhancing footwork absolutely is applicable.

Tuiaki said footwork is where all the power comes from. Martial arts footwork taps into that power.

“You can't strike comfortably with your hands and feel good about moving to your next move unless your feet are in place. That might be one of the most underestimated things that you see with defensive lineman and I see it as a coach. Every time I turn on film, in all the teams we watch, there's always a D-lineman playing with bad feet. Everybody always talks about hands and schemes and physicality and there's a lot of that that goes into it. But footwork, in my opinion, as I’ve looked at it through the years, is probably one of the most under emphasized parts of it all.”

Tuiaki said a defensive lineman is constantly going in circles with offensive linemen. It is a chase where if that guy does this, then you counter with that. It goes on and on, over and over.

“And that's why it's such a chess match, where an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman are performing what a coach is telling them, but it’s all about what his counter moves are as well.”

Tuiaki confesses, he never played defensive linemen — he was a running back.

“But for me, that's always been a fun part of coaching. I don't have all the answers because I never played that position. But I say let's fill your tool bag with as much as we can. As soon as you can kind of find the timing of what you like and what you don't like and what works for you, and if I’ve given as much knowledge as possible, just let those guys play. And I think when you get to that point, you're really starting to put together a pretty good product.”

Like Lee, Tuiaki’s experience in martial arts transformed itself over the years to more about the thinking instead of the fighting.

Here are some Bruce Lee sayings that may have shaped Tuiaki’s philosophical approach as a football coach:

• “I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.”

“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.”

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”