Ilaoa's dream season built on perseverance
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Stephen Tsai
While recovering from knee and shoulder injuries early in his career, University of Hawai'i senior running back Nate Ilaoa never dreamed things would turn out this way.
That he would become a triple threat — as a blocker, runner and receiver — or that he would be, as quarterback Colt Brennan said, "the straw that stirs the drink."
Or that strength coach Mel deLaura would declare Ilaoa as the "best athlete" in the Western Athletic Conference, only to be trumped by defensive secondary coach Rich Miano's declaration of "best player."
Or that opposing defensive coordinators would have fits trying to solve the riddle of a 5-foot-9, 245-pound player who is deceptively quick and evidently strong.
Ilaoa never had these sweet dreams because to dream requires sleep, and there were precious few REM nights three years ago.
His series of unfortunate events began in 2002, his second year and first season at UH, when he suffered a subluxation of his right shoulder.
"It kept popping out of the joint," Ilaoa said. "It kept popping out every game, and I'd pop it back in, and keep playing. It was really sore. I couldn't throw a football. I couldn't raise my (right) arm. A lot of things were tough."
Even resting had become difficult.
"When you're sleeping, your arm could just slip out (of the joint)," he said. "You wake up and your arm is just stuck. I'm like, 'All right, I'll have to pop it back in.' "
Ilaoa would sleep on his back, with a pillow under his right shoulder, his right arm across his chest.
"It was very hard to sleep," he said.
After undergoing shoulder surgery in the spring of 2003, he was even more limited. "That year I was lifting like crazy, up to 370 (pounds) benching," he said. "After my surgery, I couldn't even do the bar."
Then in the 2003 season opener against Appalachian State, he suffered a torn knee ligament.
It took two full seasons for the knee to heal. In the meantime, he underwent a second surgery on his right shoulder.
"So now I'm getting surgery and my knee's not even done healing, and that means you can't rehab," he said. "I can't lift and I can't run. I can't squat (lift) or do the dumb-bell stuff. I'm just sitting there with a bad knee and a bad shoulder, and the doc is saying, 'just chill.' "
Ilaoa, who weighed 180 pounds when he signed as a slotback in 2001, was up to 240 pounds entering the 2005 training camp.
"He had that midnight problem," said his cousin, UH center Samson Satele. "That's Jack-in-the-Box, Zippy's, whatever's open at midnight. That's how he gained the weight."
After Ilaoa suffered a pulled hamstring on the second day of the 2005 training camp, head coach June Jones voiced his displeasure to reporters. Jones said Ilaoa was overweight, and had let down teammates. Jones said Ilaoa's poor condition led to the hamstring injury.
"It was a tough situation," Ilaoa said. "But I wasn't going to give up. I had a lot of support."
DeLaura knew that Ilaoa's injuries made it difficult for him to train. Unwilling to give up on Ilaoa, deLaura created a special conditioning program.
"He really worked with me," Ilaoa said.
After a few weeks, Ilaoa, who had moved from slotback to running back, was the starter. He finished with 643 rushing yards, an average of 7.6 yards per carry, and six touchdowns.
During the offseason, Ilaoa committed to improving his strength and stamina. Accepting reality, Ilaoa realized he could not lose the 30 pounds to fit the image of the speed back.
Instead, Jones said, Ilaoa "decided to get into shape at the weight he was at. That's what he did."
Despite gaining about 70 pounds during his UH career, Ilaoa had never lost his quickness nor elusiveness. DeLaura worked on Ilaoa's endurance, mapping out sprint drills.
"Summer time, he ran every day," deLaura said.
Ilaoa also spent hours on the Elliptical, a cross-training machine.
Ilaoa reported to training camp at 254 pounds, but Jones said, "he was in shape."
The result was a player whom Miano described as a "hybrid. He has a fast player's feet and a big man's power."
In football, comparisons are used to rate players. Scouts have compared Ilaoa to running back LenDale White, a second-round pick by the Tennessee Titans.
But deLaura said Ilaoa shares the qualities of Southern California's starting running backs last season.
"He's a LenDale White with Reggie Bush skills, as far as catching and shakes and moves," deLaura said.
"Look at the numbers," said Miano, who serves as UH's liaison to the NFL. "He's averaging 7.2 yards per carry (this year)."
On shovel passes, which are UH's equivalent of draws, Ilaoa's yards-after-catch average is better than 15.0 per play. He averages more than one broken tackler per rush.
In team testing last spring, Ilaoa ran 40 yards in 4.65 seconds, performed 121 sit-ups in two minutes, and bench pressed 225 pounds 30 times.
"He's one of a kind," Jones said. "No question about that. I've had a lot of great big runners — "Ironhead" (Heyward), Jamal Anderson, Alonzo Highsmith. They were taller, 6 feet, probably. Nate's 5-9, maybe 5-10. I've not had a player that heavy run that fast or make the moves that he makes."
New Mexico State defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer, whose "Steel Curtain" defense won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, marveled at Ilaoa's skills. Widenhofer used an offensive lineman to simulate Ilaoa in practice.
Utah State defensive coordinator Mark Johnson said he used a defensive lineman to portray Ilaoa.
Louisiana Tech head coach Jack Bicknell said he didn't even bother to find a stand-in.
"Who are we going to use?" said Bicknell, whose defense will face Ilaoa and the Warriors Saturday at Aloha Stadium. "We don't have anyone that big who is that fast."
USU's Johnson has described Ilaoa as a "freak" because of his footwork and "center of gravity."
Johnson said Ilaoa is comparable to Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, a Saint Louis School graduate who played for the Steelers, "although I think Nate might be better. Nate's tougher."
Miano said if Ilaoa drops another 10 pounds, to 235 pounds, "he's a legitimate first-round talent."
All of which leaves Ilaoa feeling "blessed."
"I've been fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of great people playing football," Ilaoa said. "I've had great coaches from Day One. I know all of the coaches were in my corner. Some have had different ways of getting (the message) to me."
Jones said: "I like all of my guys, but they can't be treated the same. ... Nate is a great kid. He's got a good heart. The players love him. He's a good kid. He needed to get focused, and he did this year. He has a bright future."