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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Kindred: CCHS grad Hoomanawanui still under Illini's radar

By Randy Kindred | rkindred@pantagraph.com | Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2009 6:45 pm

A feature story this week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch delved into Michael Hoomanawanui's reverence for his Hawaiian heritage. Included was mention of the long, bushy hair branching out from under his football helmet.

"You see a lot of Polynesian players who do that in the NFL or college. It's loyalty to the program and to my family," Hoomanawanui explained. "Plus, it stands out a little more, so maybe Juice will see my hair and know who I am."

He was kidding … sort of.

In their fourth year as University of Illinois teammates, it seems quarterback Juice Williams still has difficulty spotting his 6-foot-5, 270-pound tight end.

Hoomanawanui is a big target with soft hands and a knack for getting open. Yet, he has been ignored during much of his time in Champaign.

If you watched him play at Central Catholic High School, where he caught everything thrown his way, you simply ask, "Why?"

Hoomanawanui had no catches as an Illini freshman, five as a sophomore and 25 last year. Still, he is capable of much more, and the clock is ticking on someone to take notice at Illinois.

That's where Williams comes in, though to be fair, some of this is out of his hands.

Schemes of opposing defenses impact formations, play-calling, strategy. In the season-opening debacle against Missouri, Illinois often went with four- and five-receiver sets, putting Hoomanawanui on the sidelines.

That said, he has been on the field a lot in 35 career games, and on a team with a dual-threat quarterback and a fast, dangerous wide receiver (Arrelious Benn), a tight end with good speed and sure hands could be a lethal weapon.

Instead, Hoomanawanui is largely an untapped resource, dutifully handling his blocking responsibilities and serving as a patient, loyal team leader.

Yet, somewhere inside a voice must be screaming, "I'm right here!"

Certainly, Williams has other options, and likely is asked to look at them on most plays. But when they are unavailable, Hoomanawanui would be a dependable and potentially game-changing alternative.

So why not look at him?

Perhaps it was telling that in Illinois' most recent game, a Sept. 12 win over Illinois State, his three catches for 51 yards came after Eddie McGee took over for an injured Williams.

McGee quickly found a guy who caught 95 passes for 1,665 yards and 23 touchdowns at Central, highlighted by a number of acrobatic and one-handed grabs.

Hoomanawanui's 48 receptions, 833 yards and 13 TDs as a senior included two fourth-quarter touchdown catches against Pontiac, rallying Central to a 21-14 victory.

The first was a leaping one-hander on fourth-and-21. The other, with 1:33 left, was a 27-yarder in which he broke a tackle and outran everyone to the end zone.

Thirty years of covering high school football exposes you to a lot of gifted receivers. None has had softer hands, or been better when it counted, than Hoomanawanui.

He caught an early touchdown pass the last time Illinois played at Ohio State, part of a 28-21 upset victory in 2007. The Illini go to Columbus on Saturday, with Williams and Benn both healthy for the first time this season.

Illinois' athletic Web site includes a link to 7-to-9.com, an awards page for Williams (No. 7) and Benn (9). Add 7 and 9 and you get 16, the number on Hoomanawanui's jersey.

Look for it, Juice … or at least for the big hair.

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