By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
While recruiting in American Samoa nearly five years ago, University of Hawai'i assistant coach Rich Miano came across a 17-year-old Leone High senior who could run 40 yards in 4.6 seconds, dunk a basketball off a 360-degree move, and long jump 21 feet.
"He's an amazing athlete," Miano said at the time. "His only fault is he wants to become a journalist."
Melila Purcell III, now a 6-foot-5, 278-pound UH senior, is making news as one of the Western Athletic Conference's best defensive ends.
Yesterday, for the second time this season, Purcell was named the WAC's Defensive Player of the Week.
In Saturday's 54-17 victory over
UH uses a scoring system in which a defender is awarded a "hit" for every tackle or shot that leads to a tackle. Purcell was credited with 11 hits against the Spartans.
"In 44 plays, that's a good number for a linebacker," defensive line coach Jeff Reinebold said. "It's phenomenal for a defensive lineman, really unheard of for someone who plays on one side of the field."
In UH's 3-4 scheme, Purcell is aligned on the left side — usually an offense's strong side — and faces a minimum double team on every pass play. The Spartans also had a power package in which they used six offensive linemen at the same time.
"We don't want him engaged in a block too long," Reinebold said. "We ask him to be a movement guy, which means to move all over the field and make plays. That's not easy when the other team sends two blockers after you."
Purcell uses his speed (now 4.7 seconds over 40 yards) and strength (benches more than 400 pounds) to break free from blockers.
"What's fun about watching Mel play is his total command of his responsibilities," defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville said. "He totally knows on every call where he's supposed to be and what he's supposed to do. It's a great teaching tool for the people who are playing on the defensive line. You can say, 'Look at this, look at how he's doing.' "
Mel deLaura, who coordinates the conditioning program, said Purcell is working out with the same ferocity as he did as a second-year freshman in 2003. Purcell attended classes but did not practice in 2002 because the NCAA did not accept a high school English course as a core class.
Purcell weighed about 220 pounds as a second-year freshman. But the progress he made in 2003 could not be developed further because of a series of injuries the next two years.
This year, despite an arm injury, Purcell bit his mouthpiece and kept working.
"He decided he was going to make this his big-time year," deLaura said. "It started in January. He worked hard in the weight room and at running. He took care of business. Maybe it's because he's not as banged up. But he decided he was not going to be the guy going through the motions. He came in and worked his butt off. It's paid off. He's always working out, every day. When I come in, he's here. When I leave, he's here."
Purcell, who gained 25 pounds during the offseason, acknowledged he is in better health.
What's more, he said, "I'm more comfortable with the defensive scheme. My teammates encourage me to play at a higher level every week."
Reinebold said to maximize effectiveness, the defensive linemen are placed under play limits. Purcell's 44 plays against SJSU were his most in a game this season.
"We always tell our guys, 'You're not going to play as an NFL player after you cash your first NFL check,' " Reinebold said. "That means they have to play at that NFL level before the NFL will even consider them."
Reinebold said Purcell, based on his play this season, is deserving of a shot in the NFL.
"The NFL draft is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and being the match for the right team," Reinebold said. "But when I compare him to guys I've coached or been around, he's certainly as talented as anyone. Look at the impact he has in games."
Reinebold said Purcell's skills — strength, quickness, good "motor" — are comparable to former All-Pro L'Roi Glover's abilities.
"Now that doesn't mean Mel will be a Pro Bowl player," Reinebold said. "That means he's playing at an extremely high level."
Reinebold also said Purcell has maintained his strong play late in the season.
"That something the pros notice," Reinebold said. "When you're an NFL team playing a 16-game schedule over 17 weeks, with all of that travel, you're looking for players who won't wear down."
Purcell also has shown feistiness this season. During a practice, he scuffled with his cousin, center Samson Satele.
"Mel is Mel," Satele said. "I knew he was the best, but sometimes he keeps it in. Maybe it was because he was hurt. But he's playing at a high level, like an NFL d-end. When he brings it out, he's unstoppable."