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Friday, September 07, 2007

Playing in Rose Bowl is a big deal for Y.'s Aulai

By Dick Harmon
Deseret Morning News
Published: September 7, 2007
Sete Aulai has been a UCLA football fan all of his life. Even when all his buddies and neighbors in Carson, Calif., were die-hard USC faithful, he stuck with the Bruins, and now he gets a chance to go against the powder blue in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday.

A big deal for Aulai, BYU's senior center?

"It's a very big deal to me," said Aulai. "They didn't recruit me and I want to show them what they missed."

Aulai has plenty to be proud of since he started for the Cougars a year ago. He is a key cog in an offense that has proved crucial in an 11-game win streak dating back to last season, establishing the second-longest run in the country. He's played on a winning bowl team that was ranked and owns a MWC championship ring.

And now the Cougars are 1-0, working on a 3-0 win streak against Pac-10 schools with two straight wins over Oregon and Arizona.

For the first time in his career, he is surrounded by an offensive line that is experienced and healthy. A year ago, a few might remember, BYU's offensive line was decimated with injuries and shoulder surgeries in the offseason leading up to 2006. Few O-linemen even went through spring practice, forcing head coach Bronco Mendenhall to cut down on repetitions and scrimmages because he simply didn't have enough bodies.

That's how 2006 began, but not how it ended. Now, in 2007, heading to Pasadena and No. 13 UCLA, Aulai has more confidence.

In August 2006, a big issue was Aulai's inexperience at center and his "rolling" of shotgun snaps to John Beck.

Today, that seems like a long, long time ago when one considers the strength that is now the Cougar offensive line with Dallas Reynolds and Dave Oswald at tackle and Ray Feinga and Travis Bright manning the guard positions. With Garrett Redden and J.R. Willing coming in as relief, this may be as good a line the Cougars have had in decades.

Aulai said he is far more confident in making his reads and calls to the other linemen than he was a year ago heading into the Arizona game at Tucson. "It does feel like we are picking up where we left off, but personally, for me, I'm more confident," he said.

"We didn't put up as many points (against Arizona) as we wanted to, but definitely, I feel like we picked up right where we left off."

Aulai said the Cougars head into Pac-10 territory reloaded. "Not to say we don't miss John Beck, Curtis Brown and others, because we do, but we have plugged in some quality players in this offense."

BYU coaches have high praise for Aulai, his attitude, his preparation and they say he has established a fairly "nasty" attitude along the line — to have an aggressive mindset as they go about protecting Max Hall and blocking for Fui Vakapuna, Harvey Unga and Manase Tonga.

His teammates voted Aulai as a team captain. "I've never been voted as a captain of anything in my life," said Aulai.

"Knowing I have their trust and I have these guys to back me up is a great honor and I'm going to do everything I can to just lead these guys and be an example."

Aulai grew up in a completely different world than Provo. While he says it isn't as rough as East Los Angeles or Compton on Long Beach, Carson is a place where you have to stand up for yourself.

While offensive coordinator Robert Anae says Aulai's mental toughness rubs off on his teammates because of where he grew up, he personally believes he's "mellowed out" since living in Provo for three years.

"My friends ask me what's happened to me, why I'm so mellow. I tell them that's what Provo does to you."

Aulai is the second center from Carson to start for the Cougars in recent years. Morris Unutoa (1993) went to Carson High School before playing for the Cougars.

"I've never played in the Rose Bowl, but being in there playing in that environment will be exciting. I want to put on a performance, not only for BYU but for my family and friends."

Aulai said facing UCLA's highly-touted front seven is a huge challenge. "But it isn't a challenge we can't meet. Their defensive tackle, Kevin Brown, is a very good defensive tackle and going against him will be a challenge for me to do my assignments. Their D-ends are very talented. I think it's going to really be a battle out there."

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