JC FOOTBALL: El Camino's defensive end uses endless energy to become a player of year.
Simi Kuli is constantly moving. El Camino College's 6-foot-4, 270-pound sophomore defensive end oozes energy, and with his size and athleticism, it can be a scary sight for opposing teams' offenses.
Kuli, a Hawthorne High graduate who spent a year away from football after high school, joined the El Camino football team last year when his cousin, Vuna Tuihalamaka, suggested he try out.
Tuihalamaka (Arizona), the Mission Conference National Division Defensive Player of the Year last season as an inside linebacker for El Camino, had some clout, so Kuli listened and went out for the team.After emerging as a playmaker late last year, Kuli missed most of the first four games of this season with a knee injury. It was difficult for a guy with his energy level to be out of action.
"It was hard to watch those games from the sideline," Kuli said. "I want to be out there. But I stayed on physical therapy and treatment and I feel like my knee is pretty much 100 percent now."
After returning from his injury, Kuli quickly established himself as dominant player and was awarded for his efforts, following in his cousin's footsteps by being named the Mission Conference American Division Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Kuli has 30 tackles and five sacks in his shortened season, with most of his tackles throwing running backs for a loss of yards. Kuli said he was shocked to earn such accolades.
"I didn't see that coming," he said.
Most of his teammates and coaches see him coming, though, because with a huge, solid frame, a big head of curly black hair and a lot of energy, he's hard to miss.
"Just wind him up and turn him loose," El Camino coach John Featherstone said. "The day he was born he was probably a ball of fire. He keeps guys loose and creates a spark for the team."
Kuli said he skipped a year of college to go on a church mission that didn't pan out, and when he joined the El Camino program, he quickly found out he had a lot to learn about football.
"I'm still learning," Kuli said. "The coaches here humbled me down. My freshman year, I only knew stuff from high school. They've taught me a lot."
As a captain, Kuli has been a model player in the program.
"He understands and is a big part of what we do," defensive line coach Kenny Talanoa said. "He's been there everyday for us. He's done everything we've asked."
Kuli also is a verbal leader for the Warriors (8-1), who host Moorpark (8-2) today in the American Bowl, which serves as the first round of the Southern California Regional Playoffs.
"Especially on game day, I like to get the team hyped, I love talking to team," Kuli said.
"He's a fire-up guy," Featherstone said.
Kuli's best game this season came against Golden West, when he had four tackles for a loss of yards, including three sacks in a 44-14 victory.
"He's a great rush end with a great motor," Featherstone said. "He does all the things that champions do. Tackles get real tired of blocking him in the fourth quarter."
Featherstone said Kuli watches the snap and has a good feel for if it's going to be a run or a pass, and that he's equally adept at defending both, even if he's not in on the tackle.
"He bounces stuff outside to linebackers when opponents don't want to go that way," Featherstone said. "It's very seldom that he gets kicked outside and out of the play. He'll cancel inside stuff out."
After emerging as a difference-maker in the playoffs last season, Kuli came into this season as a Preseason All-American. He's garnered a lot of attention from NCAA Division I football programs, but said he has verbally committed to Nebraska after a visit to Lincoln.
"It stuck in me after going out there," Kuli said. "I loved the atmosphere, the players and the coaches. The visit threw me closer to making my choice."
Before he moves on, Kuli has unfinished business at El Camino. Last year, the Warriors unexpectedly won the state title, but with two losses, missed out on the national title. Kuli said his main goal is to go to Nebraska with a junior college national championship under his belt.
Kuli feels this team has what it takes, even more so than last year's squad.
"Last year we had my cousin (Tuihalamaka), an All-American linebacker, and there can never be anyone to replace him," Kuli said. "But this team is stronger and has great chemistry. It feels like home."