EUGENE — Oregon sophomore receiver Lavasier Tuinei considers himself a California guy, having been raised in the Golden State before living in Big Ten country for six years.
So, when the Oregon Ducks play Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, Jan. 1 at Pasadena, Calif., Tuinei won’t be sentimental about going against the Buckeyes of the Midwest.
“I’m not really a Big Ten kind of guy,” he says. “Really, I don’t like the Big Ten.”
Tuinei, from Westminster, Calif., prepped in Noblesville, Ind., for three years and at Hamilton Heights High of Arcadia, Ind., for one year, each school northeast of Indianapolis — and right in the thick of Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue fandom. He and reserve defensive tackle Terrance Montgomery, from Pennsylvania, are the only Ducks from Big Ten country.
“Everybody loves Notre Dame and IU and all that, and I hate them,” Tuinei says. “I’m a West Coast guy, and they’re in their own little world over there.”
Although statistics might not show it, Tuinei has been a valuable member of the Ducks.
The receiver positions were somewhat in flux in training camp, with Jeff Maehl as the only full-time player back in the mix. D.J. Davis, a one-game starter in 2008, was coming off knee surgery. Rory Cavaille, a projected ’09 starter, suffered a shoulder injury in camp. Speedster Jamere Holland was his inconsistent self. Garrett Embry was competing, but not separating himself from the others. Touted newcomers Tyrece Gaines and Diante Jackson, as well as Blake Cantu, were learning the system and coming along slowly. Aaron Pflugrad and Chris Harper had left the program.
With Cavaille out, Tuinei ended up playing mostly slot, and he started eight of the Ducks’ 12 games, as a Maehl-Davis-Tuinei corps settled in. It surprised Tuinei to even play.
“I really thought I was going to redshirt, I really did,” he says. “I didn’t know I would play, up until right before Boise State.”
Tuinei goes to the Rose Bowl with 22 catches, tied for third on the team with Davis, behind Maehl and tight end Ed Dickson. Tuinei has 187 yards receiving, but with no touchdowns.
From the start, UO coach Chip Kelly liked what he saw in Tuinei, who, despite being 6-5 and only 205 pounds, plays with a physical edge.
“He’s a tough kid,” Kelly said, on the eve of the season. “He had a great offseason, worked his tail off. The great thing about getting kids to come in for spring practice, they’re light years ahead. Even though it’s only 15 practices, it seems like ‘LT’ has been here for a couple years.”
“LT Tuinei,” as Kelly and teammates call him, played in a run-style offense in high school. So he did his share of blocking. Kelly and his coaches stress receiver blocking, because of the importance the Ducks place on the run game. The ticket to playing time as an Oregon receiver is having the ability and desire to block.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better,” Tuinei says, of his blocking.
“We had a void after Rory got hurt, and LT was the guy who stepped in,” says Maehl, who has 52 catches for 686 yards and six scores. “He did an awesome job of learning that (inside) spot and performing. It’s a tougher spot to learn — I’ve played both (inside, outside) — because of blocks and all that stuff. He’s done a great job.”
Maehl says the Ducks pride themselves on trying to be the best blocking receivers in the Pac-10.
Tuinei caught 41 passes for 680 yards and three scores in his one and only season at Golden West CC in Huntington Beach, Calif. In Oregon’s spring game, he had five catches, including two of the acrobatic variety, to open Kelly’s eyes. But at 190 pounds, he needed to get stronger.
“Coach (Scott) Frost really improved me in blocking,” Tuinei says. “When I first came in, blocking wasn’t too much for me. I was able to do the job, and I got a lot stronger this season and was able to block even better.”
Oregon’s instability at the receiver position manifested itself early in the season, and Maehl was the first receiver with a TD catch (in the third Pac-10 game, at UCLA). He ended up with six TD receptions.
“We had to establish our run game,” Maehl says. “With LaMichael (James) coming on, it really opened stuff for us. Defenses can’t cover everything we give them, because we spread the field out so well.”
It was a breakout year for Maehl, a junior, although he says he’s just “out there trying to be in the right spots at the right times. I’m trying to catch the ball when it comes my way; the touchdowns and yards and catches will take care of themselves.”
Maehl and QB Jeremiah Masoli had chemistry from the 2008 season and their offseason work together. Davis recently claimed he is finally 100 percent healthy, and “he’s such a big, strong, physical guy out there,” Maehl says. “That presence is a real advantage for him.”
Tuinei, meanwhile, figures his time is coming to be a featured receiver.
“I’m getting more catches a game, and Masoli’s starting to trust me more,” he says. “I have a feeling about this one,” meaning maybe getting into the end zone against the Buckeyes.