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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Cougs' Lesuma breath of fresh air

ast updated August 20, 2007 10:47 p.m. PT


PULLMAN -- It was raining. It was gloomy. It was flat-out miserable here Sunday afternoon. The Cougars trudged onto their practice field, looking like they didn't want to be there.

Ten minutes later, in a pre-planned move, coach Bill Doba called off practice to give the team a break. The players rejoiced as they ran off the field. But then I noticed a straggler, an awfully big straggler. He wasn't running and wasn't smiling.

"I'm kind of disappointed," said Vaughn Lesuma. "I got here early to get taped and I'm already wet, so let's just do it."

In less than two weeks Lesuma is expected to start his first Division I game, and he knows he needs the work.

"It's all new to me," Lesuma said.

Before arriving in Pullman, I had heard about the problems with the offensive line due to the graduation of two starters and the loss of Andy Roof because he was a three-time violator of WSU's alcohol policy.

There are three returning veterans -- left guard Bobby Byrd, center Kenny Alfred and right guard Dan Rowlands -- but that leaves the tackle spots to untested players such as freshman Micah Hannam and JC transfer Lesuma, neither of whom has played a down for the Cougs.

This is not a good thing, or so I thought. I have no idea how Hannam will do at right tackle, but I suddenly have faith in Lesuma after spending a half-hour with him after Sunday's shortened practice.

If he's pouring the Cougar Kool-Aid this year, I'm drinking it and asking for another cup. Lesuma is as delightful as his story.

On letter-of-intent day, I remember seeing his name on the list of WSU's recruits. Surely this was another Cougar reach, a kid from Fiji. They don't play football in Fiji, but hey, Lesuma played rugby and his high school basketball team won the Fiji national championship.

I was skeptical -- just what the Cougs need, a lineman who has played only two years of football. Maybe he surfed, too; that will really help him in the Palouse.

But then you talk to the kid and find out he's not a kid. Lesuma is 25. Then you find out more about him and decide that you not only want him to succeed but marry your daughter as well. It's not a Pullman pipe dream this time.

"He has a chance to be one of the best (offensive linemen ever at WSU)," said offensive line coach George Yarno. "He's built like a pro football player. He has all the pieces you look for, the size and the athleticism. If he can put it all together, he could be dominating. He's got all the things you want in a player except for experience. Someone who is 330 pounds and can move like him does not come along very often."

In all of his years as a coach, including stints at LSU and ASU, Yarno has never had a junior-college lineman this ready to play in the first game.

And yet the 6-foot-5 Lesuma will say, "It's all new to me."

In Fiji, he wanted to play football but couldn't because no one had a team. He lived in a little town on top of a mountain, about 30 minutes from the beach. After graduating from high school, his parents moved to Hawaii, and Lesuma expressed an interest in playing college football after going on a two-year Mormon mission in California.

He was told he could get exposure if he went to a junior college, so that's what he did, ending up at Mt. San Jacinto in California. Coach Ed Carberry must have liked his size and footwork, but Lesuma was raw. On his first day of practice, his coach talked to him about zone blocking. Lesuma thought: "Zone blocking? I don't even know what a zone is."

"It was like a foreign language," he said.

A good listener and quick learner, Lesuma attracted interest from Oregon State, San Diego State, Nevada, UNLV and Kansas State but chose WSU because of Pullman's small-town family atmosphere that reminded him of home.

He recalls being in Hawaii last Christmas Eve while his buddies played ukuleles until 1 a.m. under a palm tree. A week later he was in Pullman, shivering as he walked across campus to the Cougars' indoor practice field.

"I cannot talk, I cannot enunciate well, I was that frozen," he said. "But if I did that, this is how bad I want this. It didn't faze me. I was excited to be with those guys."

He is more acclimated now, living in an apartment with his younger brother Reed, a backup at right tackle. But it will still take time. He missed spring ball because of a broken wrist.

Lesuma understands Coug-fan concerns about the offensive line and that new guy from the islands.

"I don't blame them," he said. "It's normal to question the unknown."

The Fiji phenom is something else. When he and his brother Reed were at Winger's in Moscow, Idaho, they were served before Doba's dinner arrived. Doba told them to go ahead, but they insisted on waiting until his dinner came.

"I had never seen that before," Doba said.

Lesuma is a devout Mormon who has never had sex or alcohol.

"It's helpful with my focus," Lesuma said. "If I have to worry about all that other stuff, it would be a distraction. It's a critical time right now."

When he laces 'em up on Sept. 1, Lesuma will play in front of more than 82,000 fans at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. A typical crowd at Mt. San Jacinto games was 200. He thought it was a pretty big deal when 500 people showed up for last Saturday night's scrimmage.

"I was like, whoa!" he said, scanning the Martin Stadium crowd.

The bigger stage is coming, and Lesuma swears he'll be ready.

"Coach Yarno says that being an offensive lineman is a privilege, not a duty," he said. "I want to live up to that honor to the best of my ability. I think I'm going to prove myself. Actually, I know I am."


Geoffrey said...

Refreshing. I'll be watching him grow and develop this season at games in Martin Stadium. I wish him well.

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