Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Eighteen-year-old Cottonwood High student Keni Kaufusi signs his commitment papers to play football at the University of Utah.

Just a few months ago, playing football for a Division I school was nothing more than a dream for Cottonwood defensive tackle Keni Kaufusi.

But thanks to a lot of extra hard work in the classroom, Kaufusi had several Division I offers to choose from this spring, and this weekend he decided to take his skills to the University of Utah next fall.

The senior was considering Colorado, Oklahoma State and Oregon State but chose Utah because he felt comfortable with the coaching staff and the school's support services.

"It actually feels very overwhelming," said Kaufusi, who earlier this season didn't think he would be academically eligible to play Division I football. "I'm very happy to be graduating and to be going to college. (My family) are all so surprised that I've made it this far. It feels great."

Kaufusi was impressed with the programs he visited but said it really came down to his comfort level with the Utah coaches and the support services as well as having a guaranteed scholarship if he finishes his make-up classes by June.

Kaufusi said he's always been a Ute fan, and he's known assistant coach Gary Andersen since he was about 10 years old.

"Coach Andersen made a difference," he said, adding he's got four classes to finish, two of which he's nearly completed.

The willingness of Utah coaches to work with Kaufusi was the key in his decision, and his high school coaches said he's overcome a lot to be in this position.

"Academically, he's on track to do everything they've asked of him," said Cottonwood coach Cecil Thomas. "He'll succeed, there's no doubt in my mind. He's knocking those classes out one by one, and as far as seniors go, he's one of the few who is in the weight room everyday. He's very accountable and on track to be enrolled and playing football in August. It's great for the kid."

Kaufusi said he'll be staying with his biological brother, Cottonwood offensive lineman John Martinez, and his parents until he heads to college in August. John's father, Steve Martinez, said Kaufusi has always had the ability to play football at the highest levels.

"He's just so big, so fast, so physical," said Steve Martinez. He believes Kaufusi's choice will be a good fit for him because he has a lot of support, both academically and socially.

Thomas said that, like Kaufusi, he didn't foresee this opportunity for the talented athlete just a few months ago.

"I'm very happy and surprised at the same time," he said. "He's been grinding it out since football season ended to get here. And for a coach, this is what it's all about."

Andersen, the Utes' defensive coordinator, is responsible for recruiting in the state of Utah, and he said each student athlete is evaluated on very specific, individual circumstances — regardless of the time of year.

"Just because that first Wednesday in February is over doesn't mean the recruiting process is over," he said. "Everybody still has needs and wants. If you see an opportunity to help your program, then you try to take it."

Recruiting, he said, "is never, never over. It's the most important job you do."

So how do college coaches look at students who have struggled academically or may not have completed required courses in the usual time frames?

"It's always a completely case-by-case situation," Andersen said. "There are a lot of reasons kids are making up classes at the end of the year."

He cites the case of Gabe Long, a defensive tackle who was a junior college transfer who became available about two weeks into the Utes' season.

"He was a player we'd recruited, and when he became available, we did what we could to take him in our program," he said. "In our opinion, it has to be a kid who is going to fit into our program. ... He has to have high character and a kid who is not afraid to work hard, go to study hall and basically represent the University in a positive way."

He said the expectation is that regardless of talent, players are expected "to mold themselves to our program."

Also, no matter what kind of academic history a student-athlete has, they are all treated the same once they've enrolled at Utah.

"We believe that the first semester is the key to their success," Andersen said. All players must attend study hall, and they have tutors and mentors available to them. Additionally, he said, the Burbidge Center, "is an unbelievable academic facility."

The goal is to make sure players don't start their college careers at a disadvantage because university classes are a significant adjustment for any student.

"Each position coach is also responsible for the day-to-day life of each player and are a terrific support group to players," he said.

For the next 30 days, college football coaches are allowed to visit high schools and talk with school teachers, counselors and coaches about prospective players. They're not allowed to talk with students or parents, but they are allowed a single phone call.

Andersen said that student-athletes and their parents are allowed to call college coaches and ask questions about the recruiting process.

"I want those phone calls," he said, adding that he believes limiting college coaches to one call per player is a good rule.

"It can be pretty overwhelming to some players," he said. "This basically puts the ball in the kids' court."

Andersen also encourages parents to call schools and coaches that their student-athletes are interested in attending because recruiting can be complicated.

"As a parent, you're going to get good at this process, and then you'll probably never need to use it again," Andersen said. "It's a hard decision. So parents need to ask those questions."

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