MOSCOW, Idaho – Come Thursday night, Idaho football fans will have a better sense of how the Vandals’ starting linebacker crew has coalesced. Already, though, this much is certain: They fit together splendidly at their off-campus home.
JoJo Dickson and Robert Siavii are from Hawaii, Homer Mauga’s family used to live in Honolulu, and all three have carried the laid-back islands’ vibe to their house.
Football, movies, food – there’s little disagreement among them on these and other topics.
“The chemistry with all of us is good at home,” said Siavii, a junior from Wahiawa, Hawaii. “It’s basically like three brothers living together without a mom and dad.”
The familial ties run deeper than that, actually. Just a month ago, Mauga, the newest projected starter on the Idaho defense, discovered his parents were close friends – and very distant relatives – with Siavii’s mother and grandparents in Hawaii in the 1980s.
“(It’s a) small world,” Mauga said. “I basically stick with those guys, and they’re a great big help.”
This is the story of Mauga and his two roommates – each with similar backgrounds and frenetic playing styles, and each a key element in the Vandals’ most promising defense in years.
Mauga’s first true taste of football beyond the junior-college level will come Thursday, in Idaho’s season opener versus North Dakota at the Kibbie Dome.
In a way, though, the La Mesa, Calif., native with a superb Samoan football pedigree is more than prepared. He’s spent a large portion of his life watching family members – bunches of them – filter through college and the NFL.
Mauga’s cousin is Junior Seau, a linebacker who became an NFL superstar. His father’s cousin is Dan Saleaumua, a Pro Bowl defensive lineman who ended his career in Seattle in 1998.
Josh Mauga, another cousin, is fighting for playing time with the New York Jets.
But that’s not all. In Mauga’s immediate family, the ties to football are also extensive. Among his five brothers, four have played collegiately. His twin brother, Hutch, is still at Grossmont College in California, where Homer played the last two years.
One of his older brothers, Magnum, completed his career recently at Utah State. Yet another brother, Dallas, starred at Sacramento State and later came close to grabbing an NFL roster spot.
“The NFL – that’s the goal for Samoan athletes,” said Benson Mauga, Homer’s father.
Benson, 50, retired from the Navy in 2001. He spent the last 12 years of a 22-year Navy career near San Diego, where his six boys thrived on the football field.
While in Honolulu in the ’80s, Benson met Siavii’s grandfather, who did security and police work. Each had similarly aged children, and so the Maugas and Siaviis struck a bond.
Eventually, Shana Siavii, Robert’s mother, became so close that she would stay at the Mauga’s home during weekend sleepovers.
“We called them our kids,” Benson said.
When Homer signed with Idaho, Shana phoned her son and asked about the new recruit’s full name.
“She was in shock that his last name was Mauga,” Robert said. “That’s the last name of the family that raised her when she was a kid.”
Immediately comfortable in his new environment, Homer has made a big enough splash with Vandal coaches to earn a starting gig at strongside linebacker. While just 6-foot and 215 pounds, the junior’s speed and aggressive approach have been a perfect fit for a defense that looked sluggish at times last year.
“You always need to play faster and get more speed out on the field, and I think we’re close to being able to do that,” coach Robb Akey said.
Like Mauga, Siavii – 6-2, 216 pounds – is small for his position. He’s so slender that people often confuse him for someone other than a linebacker.
Once, at the Super China Buffet in Moscow, a woman saw him wearing an Idaho football T-shirt and asked what position he played.
After Siavii told her, she replied, “You do not look like a linebacker.”
“I just laughed and said, ‘Thank you, ma’am. Thanks for the compliment,’ ” he recalled.
The junior was a decorated player at Leilehua High, earning defensive player of the year honors from the Honolulu Advertiser and garnering interest from Hawaii and other schools.
Since joining UI in 2008, he’s started 17 games. And through fall camp and the spring, he’s been one of the Vandals’ most consistent playmakers.
Siavii remained in Moscow in the summer to train with teammates, and he said he feels faster after the grueling conditioning. It helps, too, that he has two full years of experience.
“I know what I have to do so I can mess around with my blitzes, I can mess around with my coverages,” he said. “I can just play football. I don’t ever think out there now.”
Dickson, a 235-pound senior, has predominantly played on the outside during his productive career. But as part of offseason tinkering, coaches moved him to middle linebacker to better showcase his speed and coverage skills.
So far, it seems to be working.
“Being outside gives teams a way to run away from me,” Dickson said. “Me being in the middle, I can make plays on both sides of the field.”
Dickson will still switch between middle and strongside linebacker depending on the package, freeing up Tre’Shawn Robinson to also play in the middle and Conrad Scheidt – another Hawaiian – to get time as well.
Added depth has given Akey and defensive coordinator Mark Criner options, which is a “much better scenario than we’ve had forever, since we’ve been here,” Akey said.