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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Print Email Font Resize Monson: Utah's Kepa Gaison a changed man

There are player transitions, player repositions, and then there's whatever it is that Kepa Gaison has pulled off at Utah.

Not an evolution, a revolution.

Over the past four years, the senior has transformed himself from a walk-on to a full scholarship athlete. And that happens, sometimes. But he also morphed himself from a fat punter and place-kicker into a rocked-up linebacker. Who does that?

One guy: Gaison.

He went from being a scout team punter, upon whom the regulars and scrubs alike used to review the rules for roughing the kicker in special teams drills, abusing him as a crash dummy, to nailing down six tackles, five solos, and two sacks in the Sugar Bowl.

"He was a pudgy punter," says Kalani Sitake, defensive coordinator and the first Ute coach to talk to Gaison when he was in high school. "Kind of a sacrificial lamb in practice."

The major reason Gaison was even allowed to walk on at Utah was because his father, Blaine, is a football legend in Hawaii, a former quarterback at the University of Hawaii who went on to play safety for the Atlanta Falcons. Sitake visited with Gaison at his high school because he was there to recruit his teammate, current Ute offensive lineman Tyler Williams.

"There were only about 105 slots, so it was hard for them to bring in a lot of punters and kickers," Gaison says. "But they said they'd let me walk on."

The 5-foot-10, 250-pound freshman showed up here looking like a cross between Garo Yepremian and the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man.

"I'm a shorter guy," he says. "I didn't carry 250 the way a 6-3 guy would. I didn't exactly fit the mold of a punter."

He expanded the normal bounds of that mold as a big-eating teenager who loved Hawaiian cooking, including barbecue chicken and rice, spam and rice, any kind of meat and rice. He had played mostly soccer as a kid, but once he got to high school, football took over. He kicked and also played offensive line, so dietary concerns flew out the window. There wasn't a piece of pork or beef or pie that was disagreeable to him.

At Utah, though, sitting behind Louie Sakoda, and getting slapped around on the scout team got old, like, yesterday. Gaison decided to trim down to 200 pounds and seriously pursue the punting thing. He also begged the coaches to let him run some scout team defense. They obliged, and were impressed with his instincts, his smarts, and his physicality, so, bit by bit, they gave him more time and attention.

"Kepa changed his body," Sitake says. "He was already strong, but he went from not having much definition to being a real good-looking kid. All of a sudden, he was walking around with his shirt off. He turned into a team leader. He's not the biggest or the fastest, but he makes plays. He was always an unselfish guy, so his teammates all loved him."

Working out like a demon, he got himself back to 220, and played in all but two games as a junior, backing up all three linebacker spots. "It was hard at first," he says. "But I got the hang of it." The bowl game against Alabama was his personal highlight and a pinnacle that caused Gaison to reflect on how far he'd come.

"It was crazy to look back to where I'd been to where I was now," he says. "I learned that there are no limitations to what a person can do -- with faith, the support of family, teammates, and coaches. You can do anything if you put your mind to it."

Every once in a while, the Ute kickers in camp give Gaison the business, asking the not-so-round-mound-of-rebound to come back over where the real men are and work with them.

"Hey, you want to punt?"

The starting linebacker laughs, declines, and runs over to the defense, his remarkable metamorphosis now complete.

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