Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
ELY — For UNLV senior defensive tackle Isaako Aaitui, there are only two places he could have wound up at this point in his life: On the football field or on the farm back home in American Samoa.
"I really like this option," he said with a grin following Saturday morning's practice in Ely. "Football is life, especially when you're from the islands. Football is the ticket to success."
Despite the fact that he's playing after suffering a partially torn ACL in his left knee in the spring — an injury that did not require surgery — and a cast on his left forearm, Aaitui couldn't be happier.
To explain why, you first have to go back to 2007, when Aaitui first arrived at UNLV. He'd only played one year of high school football, had never lifted a weight in his life and didn't speak a lick of English.
At 220 pounds, his body had been trained to play rugby — his sport of choice since the third grade — but that's not a sport he could realistically go back to now.
After just a year in the weights program at UNLV, he ballooned to 290 pounds. Now, entering his final season as a Rebel, he's a 315-pound mountain of pure muscle, expected to be the anchor for a revamped defense under first-year coach Bobby Hauck.
Oh yeah, and he's also fluent in English.
"When I first got here, I had no technique. I came over with nothing," he said. "It took some years to develop. Last year, I started to learn how to rush the passer and everything. It's been a pretty good progression."
Aaitui had what Hauck called one of the most impressive spring camps of anyone on his inherited ball club and again is drawing rave reviews so far through fall camp.
What makes it all so impressive, too, is that he was able to overcome a major physical hurdle late in spring ball when he hurt the knee in a standard drill working against the offensive line.
A full tear is an injury that typically requires immediate surgery and roughly six months of rehab. Aaitui let the swelling go down, then was right back at it.
"When I hurt my knee, it was a big deal. It was a big deal. I was thinking about my family ... It was a big thing," he recalled. "I told the doctor to give me two weeks to rehab. After two weeks, I was running with the team and doing drills.
"I'm able to play with it. It doesn't bother me."
Aaitui still wears a heavy brace on his left knee, though ACL issues typically hinder lateral movement. However, in his position, Aaitui is asked to push piles, collapse pockets and essentially play downhill. It's a role he can also fill with the cast that he had applied for an undisclosed injury between practices on Saturday.
"I was really impressed with him about the middle of February," Hauck said. "It's like the light when on, he picked it up, and I've been overly impressed with him.
"For a big guy, he's pretty dynamic in the pass rush and gets off the ball pretty well. When you see a guy who looks like him, you'd think run-stopper and then bring somebody in for him when we're in the nickel (package). But you really don't have to, because he's pretty good off the ball."
He's finally found a home at the tackle spot after flip-flopping between there and defensive end over the past couple of years under Mike Sanford's staff.
Aaitui recorded 31 tackles and 2.5 for losses in 2009 and is expected to post even bigger numbers this year.
He'll be doing so under some watchful eyes, as he's regarded now as a legitimate NFL prospect. Just the mention of playing after college brings a smile to his face.
After his playing days are done, he said, the thought of coaching has crossed his mind.
Aaitui is already showing signs that it could be a legitimate career path. He has commanded the attention of the younger interior linemen and is a natural example for them to follow. It was the case following Friday's morning session, when he spent roughly 15 minutes doing some extra work with freshman Nate Holloway.
It's the natural leadership that the coaching staff also thinks will help the unit overall right from go.
"With our senior leadership, we don't want a single bad rep on film, and that's what we challenged with them. He's really bought into that, and that's awesome," defensive coordinator Kraig Paulson said. "What we try and stress on both sides of the ball is it's more on how you play, and he's really tried to craft that. We needed a profile guy like that to step up and have that great film on a day-to-day basis. The benefits are exponential."