Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Because Utah enjoys one of the deepest defensive lines in the country with such standouts as Star Lotulelei, Derrick Shelby, Joe Kruger, Dave Kruger, Nai Fotu and James Aiono, it's easy for Tevita Finau to get lost in the shuffle.
Not that it's very easy for a 6-foot-4, 290-pounder to get lost anywhere.
But you couldn't miss Finau in last week's 27-8 victory over Oregon State. The senior from Hawaii was everywhere it seemed, mostly in quarterback Sean Mannion's face, as he registered three sacks, or four according to the Utah coaching staff after reviewing tape of the game.
"He made a very big impact on the game," said coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's been getting better and better. Something has clicked in Tevita in the last week and we hope it continues."
When you meet Finau, it's hard to imagine the destruction he brings to the football field. He's a soft-spoken, laid-back guy from Lahaina, Hawaii, who wears dreadlocks in his hair.
He's the third-oldest player on the team — he turns 26 in January — and took a rather circuitous path to get to Utah a little over a year ago.
Finau played at three different high schools in Hawaii, finishing at Kahuku High School, where his team won the Hawaii state championship in 2004. He was a three-time all-state honoree in both football and basketball, and took a couple of years off to work before enrolling at Phoenix College.
At Phoenix, Finau was a second-team NJCAA All-American in 2007 and was the co-defensive region player of the year the following year and many of the top programs in the country wanted him.
Despite living with the Kemoeatu family in Hawaii, which produced Utes Ma'ake and Chris, and knowing several Polynesians at Utah, including defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, he committed to West Virginia over such schools as Oklahoma, Florida, USC and Tennessee.
However, a couple of things set him back — academics and being so far away from home — and he never played a down for the Mountaineers.
"I got really homesick my redshirt season and was looking for somewhere to go," he said. "I just happened to talk to my cousin Nai Fotu and here I am."
Finau had to finish up some schoolwork before enrolling at Utah and didn't join the team until late September last year. Now he's on track to graduate in the spring with a degree in communications.
"He wanted to be here and we were happy to accommodate him," said Sitake. "You want a great player whenever you can."
But he was playing the week after arriving in Utah against Iowa State and played in each of the final eight games and even got a start against TCU, before injuring his shoulder late in the season and missing the Las Vegas Bowl.
Finau came into the 2011 season mostly playing at the end position, but lately has been playing inside where his success came last week. He gives credit to his fellow linemen for his ability to make sacks.
"That's what's great about having so many playmakers on the defense, because it takes a lot of the focus away," he said. "I was just pushing it and was in the right place at the right time."
Playing this week against one of the top-rated passers in the nation in Nick Foles, Finau knows he and other defensive linemen will have their work cut out.
"He's really athletic, really shifty, has a great arm, is very accurate and gets the ball out quick," Finau said. "So it will be key for us to get pressure on him early."
Don't be surprised if you see a lot more of No. 97 wreaking havoc on Ute opponents the rest of the season.
"He is totally unselfish, never complains, is talented and works hard," said Whittingham. "I wish we could have gotten him sooner, but I'm glad we have him now and hopefully he will be a factor in our next few ball games."
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