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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Arizona football relies on Polynesian power

By Jack Magruder
Special to The Advertiser

TUCSON, Ariz. — Quarterback Bryson Beirne lifted his left pant leg up to reveal an ornate piece of body art that flows from high thigh to low calf, his 'aumakua.

It is an intricate interweaving of shark and lizard, an homage to his heritage and an outward display of the inner values that he and fellow Islander and defensive tackle Lolomana Mikaele bring to the Arizona football program every day.

Mikaele (Damien alum) and Beirne (Mid-Pacific alum) are considered leaders in an Arizona program that is attempting to return to the national prominence it attained in the 1990s, after former Hawai'i coach Dick Tomey arrived.

"I have great appreciation for 'Mana,' because he's a team guy," said Mike Tuiasosopo, Mikaele's position coach at defense tackle.

"His team is very important to him. He's a great teammate. I know the younger guys really look up to him, and Mana embraces those younger guys and really teaches them the ropes."

It is a natural path, Beirne said.

"The Polynesian culture and the word 'teammate' are synonymous," Beirne said.

"I wouldn't really see it as a team thing. I see it as a Polynesian thing, the way we were raised. To always help one another, whether they are blood or whether they are friends. In the Polynesian culture, no one is left behind.

"It's like family. It's helping somebody feel good about himself. And it helps you to feel better as well. I'm helping the young quarterbacks right now. I take them under my wing, in the offense, in football, in college life. You learn more about yourself and the world, too. You become a better person. You can't be selfish."

Beirne is in his third year in the spread offense run by offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, son of Texas Tech innovator Spike Dykes. He saw action against Washington and Idaho last season.

Beirne appears to be No. 3 on the depth chart behind Michigan State transfer Nick Foles and 2008 backup Matt Scott, but he is the one most familiar with the offense. The system permits the quarterback to change calls at the line of scrimmage.

"It's like playing a video game," Beirne said.

"It's awesome. It's really quarterback-friendly. We do checks at the line to get us into better plays. It's a lot of fun."

As for the competition, he will take things a day at a time because "that's all you can do. If you worry about everything else, you just go crazy and you won't be successful."

Mikaele is one of three defensive tackles who are expected to get a lot of playing time on an Arizona defense that ranked third in the Pac-10 and 24th in the NCAA last season.

"In my mind, he is one of our starters," said Tuiasosopo, a cousin of former NFL star Manu Tuiasosopo.

"He is a very, very integral part of our defense. One of the things he brings is strength, his physicalness. He's very athletic for a 300-pounder. He's quick. That's what you always look for in those interior defensive linemen — explosiveness, quickness and strength.

"He's done nothing but grow and improve. There are those gems, and we see Mana as a gem."

Mikaele played all 12 UA games in 2007, starting against UCLA, before sitting out last season because of an administrative issue.

He was eligible to practice with the Wildcats in 2008, and was named the scout team player of the week prior to the Washington game — a 48-14 UA victory — for his work in helping the starting unit prepare.

"Everything is going good. Everybody is faster and stronger this year, and I'm glad to be back," Mikaele said.

Missing the season "was tough. All I did was train, work out and focus on my school work so I could come back this year. And now I'm back. School was important. I wanted to come back. I'm trying to be like the underdog on game day."

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