Stephen Sylvanie / Special to the Sun
Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010 | 2:06 a.m.
Sam Tai quickly is realizing how fanatic certain college football fans can be.
Ever since the 6-foot-4, 235-pound defensive end from Liberty High was offered a scholarship by Arkansas in mid-July, his phone constantly has been ringing from Arkansas-based media trying to learn more about a prospect previously under the radar.
He's given interviews to reporters from recruiting-based websites and newspapers, and been a guest on a sports radio program. He's told everyone the same thing — of the 10 schools that have offered him a scholarship, Arkansas is near the top of his list.
"The whole (Arkansas) community supports the football program. It is just an awesome environment," Tai said.
Tai excelled at the Arkansas camp two weeks ago, frequently showing his agility in one-on-one drills against bigger offensive linemen. He was offered a scholarship the day after the camp ended, and has been a hot topic of discussion on fan site message boards.
The mystique surrounding Tai can be credited to the position he played last fall. He started every game at quarterback, filling a void in the Patriots' offense and leading them to the best season in school history.
Tai helped Liberty qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the school opened in 2003.
But, in an attempt to keep him fresh, Tai rarely played defense, only seeing snaps once the opposing team moved the ball inside Liberty's 35-yard line or on fourth-down plays.
"I saw Sam playing catch one day on the sideline and realized he had an arm," Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. "He told me he would play whatever position I needed to help the team win. That's his attitude. That says a lot to those college recruiters."
The Arkansas staff already knew about Tai before this summer.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino was an assistant at Weber State when Tai's dad, Taani Tai, played defensive line for the school in the late 1980s. Because of the connection, Sam Tai has attended the Arkansas camp the last three summers.
It's a comfort level that could be the deciding factor.
He also has offers from schools including Colorado, Colorado State, San Diego State, Idaho and UNLV. In addition to Arkansas, he said UNLV, Colorado and Idaho still are high on his list.
"He is genuinely excited about every offer he gets," Muraco said.
Don't expect Tai to be the lone local courted by Arkansas.
Kris Cinkovich, a former UNLV assistant and head coach at Las Vegas High, has been part of the Arkansas staff since January. He has several reliable local contacts and will be aggressively scouting the area.
Arkansas already has made an offer to Palo Verde running back Brandon Wright. However, Wright said he is more heavily considering offers from Cal and Colorado.
Desert Pines nose guard grabs Army offer
Tala Atimalala Jr., a 6-foot, 245-pound defensive lineman from Desert Pines, received a scholarship offer last week from Army. It was his first offer.
Atimalala, who comes from a military family, received the offer in an e-mail from an assistant coach.
"It was really exciting when I read that e-mail," Atimalala said. "The coach called and told me to check my e-mail, and there it was."
Atimalala is being recruited as a nose guard and is credited with being fast off the line of scrimmage.
His dad, Tala Atimalala Sr., recently returned from Iraq where he served with the U.S. Army Reserve. Atimalala Sr. is a longtime assistant coach at Desert Pines.
Atimalala Jr. will take a recruiting visit in December after the season. He has also received interest from BYU and Oregon State, but says regardless of who offers, Army will be in consideration.
"West Point is the No. 1 school in the nation," he said.