Isaiah Tufaga brings a cerebral approach to the center of UH's defense

Aug. 30—Hawaii's Isaiah Tufaga made the successful move to middle linebacker.

Now for Tufaga, it's all downhill the rest of the football season.

The move from weak-side linebacker "suited him because of his playing style," linebackers coach Chris Brown said of Tufaga's skill in descending on a quarterback or running back. "It's a downhill position, and he's more of a downhill guy."

In Saturday's 35-28 road loss to Vanderbilt, Tufaga made eight tackles — all solo — with three backfield stops, including two sacks. After Patrick Smith's 21-yard scoring run, Tufaga led a defense that stifled Vanderbilt running backs to 1.8 yards per carry.

"It was the best game of his career," Brown said of the sixth-year senior who transferred to UH in 2019 after a year at Oregon State. "You could see it was coming He was confident. He had more of a confidence to him throughout the week in building up to this. I could see it in practice."

Tufaga acknowledged the process began after a leg injury ended his 2022 season with six games remaining.

"I did a lot of reflecting over the time I was injured," Tufaga said. "I think that was one of the big things in how I played last year. I was being a little too robotic out there, not trusting myself. As I watched the film with Coach CB (Brown), it ultimately came down to doing my job but at the same time playing free and making plays."

This season's plan was to keep Logan Taylor, who was Tufaga's injury replacement, at weak-side linebacker, where he has sideline-to-sideline responsibilities. Tufaga moved to the mike position, replacing middle linebacker Penei Pavihi, who completed his NCAA eligibility. Tufaga easily learned his duties.

"Isaiah is probably the smartest player I've ever coached," Brown said. "One day, I know he's going to make one hell of a coach because he's like a coach on the field."

But Brown also cautioned: "Sometimes he can just out-think himself instead of just playing football. I told him: 'You know where to line up, you know what to do, now just go out and play as fast as you can. ... Take chances. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. If you play too conservative and start to out-think yourself, you'll play slow.'"

During the offseason, Tufaga worked on his pass rush, focusing on hand placement, footwork and finding gaps. As the in-the-box linebacker, the path to the backfield is more congested. In one-on-one drills, Tufaga said, "I knew I had to make a move to get around (blocks) to get to the quarterback. Last year, I really didn't have that in my tool bag. I was running straight down the middle at O-linemen, wasting myself out there. Now I use my pass rush — my technique — to help me make plays."

And similar to when they were Saint Louis School teammates, Tufaga and center Eliki Tanuvasa helped each other's development.

"Me and Eliki would battle every single day in one-on-ones," Tufaga said. "Iron sharpens iron. I kept working at it."

Tufaga also studied YouTube videos of linebackers Fred Warner of the San Francisco 49ers and Devin Lloyd of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"They're always around the ball," Tufaga said. "I always watch film specifically on those two guys and try to implement little things from their game just because they're at the top of their game at their position. If you want to be the best, you have to watch the best."

Against Vanderbilt, Tufaga accepted Brown's challenge to make plays within the defensive parameters.

Brown said: "I told him, 'This is the scheme we're running. That's your gap. Instead of waiting to see if that gap opens, just go find the football.' That's what he did. He executed his plays."

Brown graded Tufaga at 92%, the equivalent of an A, against Vanderbilt.

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