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Friday, August 04, 2006

Sense of home in Jacksonville

The Jacksonville Jaguars in the off season added another Polynesian from Hawai'i on its roster in Wayne Hunter. Hunter joins former University of Hawai'i teammates Vince Manuwai and Chad Owens. University of Colorado and Kahuku graduate Chris Naeole is entering his tenth season in the NFL. In addition Kennedy Pola is back with Jacksonville for his second year as the Jags running back coach.

Posted on: Friday, August 4, 2006

Sense of home in Jacksonville

By Bart Hubbuch
Special to The Advertiser

From left, Wayne Hunter, Vince Manuwai, running backs coach Kennedy Pola, Chad Owens and Chris Naeole. The four players from Hawai'i on the Jacksonville roster represent the largest group of athletes with Hawai'i ties on an NFL team.

JUSTIN COOPER | Jacksonville Jaguars

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When Vince Manuwai looks around the Jacksonville Jaguars' practice field these days, it sometimes feels like he never left Kuhio Park Terrace.

That's because, nearly 4,700 miles from the neighborhood where they both grew up, Manuawai has been reunited yet again with Wayne Hunter.

The two former University of Hawai'i offensive linemen seem to be inextricably linked when it comes to football, having played alongside each other by chance — but frequently — since their Pop Warner days in what Manuwai affectionately calls "KPT."

"Looking over at him, it's kind of a weird feeling," Manuwai said after the Jaguars opened training camp last weekend. "It's a good feeling, though. It's like I never left."

Said Hunter: "I feel right at home."

But neither Honolulu native is getting too comfortable, because this is undoubtedly a crucial year for both players if they hope to continue their respective careers in Jacksonville.

Manuwai, a third-round pick by the Jaguars in 2003, has started all but two games at left guard in his pro career but is on the hot seat after struggling last season.

His woes prompted the team to sign two veteran guards for competition and offer Manuwai only a one-year contract in restricted free agency in this offseason. The message is clear: Manuwai must step up this fall or find himself elsewhere in 2007.

Hunter, meanwhile, is one off-the-field incident away from being released by the Jaguars after a checkered career in Seattle that saw him serve two NFL suspensions resulting from separate assault charges brought by his girlfriend.

The final straw for the Seahawks came in May, when he was released three days after being cited for misdemeanor assault and malicious mischief for an incident in a Renton, Wash., sports bar.

The Jaguars claimed Hunter off waivers just hours after his release by Seattle, but not before calling his longtime friend Manuwai for a recommendation. Manuwai urged the Jaguars to add Hunter, whom he is convinced can turn his life around in Jacksonville.

"What better place than here?," Manuwai said, referring to the presence of two other Hawai'i natives on the team in guard Chris Naeole and wide receiver Chad Owens.

(The foursome represent the largest group of athletes with Hawai'i ties on an NFL team.)

"He's got guys he grew up with to help him out and get him back on the right track. I know he really feels at home with us here."

Manuwai also feels Hunter will have a better chance of staying out of trouble in small-town Jacksonville.

"Jacksonville isn't so fast," Manuwai said. "It's a lot more laid back. There's not too much out here to get you in trouble. The people are nice but there's not a lot of temptations. That's good, because so far, he's been walking a straight line."

While Hunter is under the microscope off the field, Manuwai's future will be decided by what he does on the field this season.

Although he started every game at left guard last season, the Jaguars were not pleased with his performance. The low point came early in the year, when Manuwai's poor play in losses to Indianapolis and Denver caused quarterback Byron Leftwich to endure a relentless beating.

As a result, the Jaguars added veterans Stockar McDougle and Mike Williams to push Manuwai while refusing to give Manuwai a long-term extension like the rest of his fellow offensive linemen. Instead, Manuwai received only a one-year tender.

That's an ominous sign that he might not be in the team's long-term plans, but Manuwai isn't fazed.

"I don't see it as a big year because I never expected to be in the position, having started 47 of 49 games in my career," he said. "I didn't even expect to get drafted, much less accomplished this much already. So I don't stress about the future. If they want me, fine. If not, that's just how it goes."

Bart Hubbuch covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for The Florida Times-Union.

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