SALT LAKE CITY — Until about a month ago, Utah’s Siaosi Aiono had never played the center position in football. He had never lined up in the middle of the line, never snapped a ball in a live situation.
Yet the way things are going, Aiono is likely to be the Utes' starting center when they open the season Aug. 28 against Idaho State.
That doesn’t mean the Utes are desperate to just stick anyone in to play center. They’re high on Aiono and confident he can fill the position that has been one of the more stable positions for the Utes in recent years.
Last year, Vyncent Jones manned the position after moving over from guard. He succeeded Tevita Stevens, who was a four-year starter from 2009-12. Zane Taylor was the center in 2008, and before that Kyle Gunther and Jesse Boone held the job for two years each.
With Aiono being a sophomore, the Utes are hoping he can anchor the offensive line for the next three seasons, especially new offensive line coach Jim Whiting.
“We had some reservations because he had never snapped the ball,’’ Whiting said. “But what he has done through 10 practices has been pretty remarkable. There’s a learning curve there, but he’s really done a nice job. In terms of his intellect, he’s been spot on what the coaches have said about him.’’
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham adds, “Siaosi is doing a nice job at center. He’s a natural. He’s had very few bad snaps and we think that’s the best position for him.’’
Aiono says he’s up to the challenge and is willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. Last year as a redshirt freshman, the 6-foot-2, 305-pounder started eight games at right tackle and has also played the left guard and right guard positions when he was a redshirt.
“I like it a lot, it’s just a lot of new things to learn,’’ Aiono said. “I haven’t played center in a live situation before, not even high school or anything. It’s a new thing to adjust to, but I’m working on it.’’
So what are the biggest adjustments he’s had to make this spring?
“Learning how to snap and being able to block at the same time,’’ he said. “That’s the hardest thing — to come off the ball while you’re snapping.’’
Besides the technical issues, the mental aspect may be just as tough.
“You have to know the whole offense, know where everybody’s going,’’ said Aiono, who is helped by the fact that he’s played guard and tackle already for the Utes.
Aiono came to Utah from West Covina, Calif., where he was a first-team all-Sierra League and second-team All-State at South Hills High School. As an LDS athlete, he was recruited by BYU and actually committed there after his sophomore season. But he changed his mind a year later.
“I got converted,’’ Aiono says with a smile. “I took a trip out here and fell in love with the players, the guys I would spend the next four to five years with. The family atmosphere was cool and that’s when I made my decision to come here.’’
His first season at the U., Aiono redshirted, and last year he earned the starting right tackle position out of fall camp, starting the majority of the season.
Aiono enjoys his new line coach, Harding, saying, “He’s so cool, he brings a lot of passion and energy. He knows how to get on us to get all excited and look at practice as an opportunity to get better.’’1 comment on this story
He’s also not assuming he’s going to keep the starting center position just because he’s there now.
“We’re shuffling guys around, nothing’s set in stone,’’ Aiono said. “We’re trying to get out of our comfort zone and try to learn every position. That’s what keeps us on our toes. I’m just trying to go out there and prove I can play whatever they want me to play whether it’s guard, tackle or center.’’
As for the offensive line as a whole, Whittingham is positive.
“It’s starting to become apparent who the top six, seven, eight guys are and the guys that we will be able to count on this fall,’’ he said. “It’s still a work in progress, but we feel that’s going to be a strength of our team, particularly when we get (starting right guard) Junior Salt back. So [the offensive line] should be a strong suit.’’