This article was copied from the Times-Picayune Sports Desk Log.
Tennessee defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona catches eyes of Tigers offense
Saturday, September 24, 2005
By Jim Kleinpeter

BATON ROUGE – You don’t have to wait for the game to sample Tennessee defensive tackle Jesse Manehola’s intensity.

Just pick up the Vols media guide and glance at the cover.

You’ll see the last thing opposing quarterbacks see before Mahelona sacks them: a closeup of Mahelona’s piercing brown eyes.

In a little more than a year, Maheloha has gone from an out-of-place Samoan in Dixie to the heart and soul of the Vols’ defense, not to mention cover boy.

Mahelona, a 6-foot-2, 297-pound All-SEC tackle and co-captain, will be the focus of LSU’s offensive game plan against Saturday.

His numbers are as scary as his looks. Last year, he had a league high 18½ tackles for losses, among them five sacks, despite being double-teamed during the latter part of the season. Last week, he led the charge against Florida, getting one of the Vols’ five sacks and generally making it a miserable day for Gators quarterback Chris Leak, although Florida won 16-7.

LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher wants Maheloha accounted for on every play.

“He’s going to be a load for us,” Fisher said. “You can look at the film from last year. He was all over the field. When he didn’t make tackles, he made the other guys make tackles because people had to double-team him, or he was forcing people to run in big loops because he was penetrating. He’s a heck of a football player.”

Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis said Mahelona was the best defensive tackle in the country last season, in which The Sporting News tabbed him as an All-American.

He almost didn’t come to Tennessee. And, after he got there, he almost didn’t stay.

Mahelona is a native of Kailua-Kona, where, in addition to football, he played basketball and soccer and was a member of the outrigger canoe team. He played two years at Orange Coast Junior College in Costa Mesa, Calif., and was set to sign with Oklahoma before he accepted an official visit to Tennessee – admittedly just to visit his brother, Steve, who was a running back at nearby Tusculum College.

“When I came here, I fell in love with it,” Mahelona said. “I can’t explain it. I just knew this was the place for me.

“I came here and saw the impact, the quickness of the game and never thought I could adjust as quickly and successfully as I have. The coaches let me do what I had to do and get comfortable. I look back on my choices and decisions. If I had not come here, I would not have been as happy as I am.”

Happiness didn’t come overnight. Mahelona was raw and struggled to learn the technical aspects of his position. Fortunately for the Vols, he made his transition during the spring of 2004.

“It took me that whole spring, and at times it was very frustrating,” said Mahelona. “(Defensive line) Coach (Dan) Brooks was very patient with me. During two-a-days, I remember one practice in particular where ... I couldn’t pick up a play. Coach (Dan) Brooks got on me, and I started to walk off the field, and Coach (Phillip) Fulmer grabbed me and talked to me and eased me. Ever since then, I took it upon myself to not miss an assignment, to know every play.’’

After getting the technique down, Mahelona was turned loose, and he progressed swiftly, an uncommon trait for junior college players, who often struggle in their first major-college season.

“He progressed very fast as a player, learning the system and the techniques,” said Fulmer. “He’s got a great motor, great intensity, a kid we feel is one of the leaders on our defensive team. In a short time, he’s found a way to be one of those special guys in the conference.”

It wasn’t just the football that was hard. Being far from home and his Polynesian culture was difficult for Mahelona. At Orange Coast JC, he lived in a house with 10 Polynesians, next door to a house with 10 more. But that was a long way from Knoxville. Luckily, Tennessee has another Samoan on the roster, offensive tackle Albert Toeaina.

“We counted on each other to get through the adversity,” Mahelona said.

Last March, Mahelona ran into some off-field adversity when his apartment burned down, and he reacted in anger by tearing a handrail off the fire truck fighting the fire. He paid for the damage and apologized to the fire department to avoid criminal charges.

Then, a local furniture store let Mahelona and his roommate use furniture for a month until they could get the items lost in the fire replaced. It turned out to be a violation of NCAA rules, and the two players had to reimburse the store $95.84 each to maintain eligibility.

Mahelona has brought some of his culture to the east. And his friends have some Volunteer mojo working to the west. Mahelona said friends back home have taken to flying orange and white Tennessee flags on game day, and they watch him play on a nine-foot television a friend bought a few weeks ago.

Certainly, they will be watching Saturday when the Vols play at LSU with their backs against the wall. One loss doesn’t end a season, but two put a team out of the national championship picture. Mahelona is counting on coming back strong.

“I think that will judge the character of our team, how we bounce back,” he said. “So far, I’ve been very happy with our last two practices. Everybody is flying around. Nobody is pointing fingers, and everybody is supporting each other. That’s mainly because of the maturity of our team.”