Sports

Kirifi Taula gets a new start at Servite

Sixth in a series previewing top high school players:

The wait is almost over for 16-year-old defensive tackle Kirifi Taula, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound Samoan giant who sat out his sophomore football season after transferring to Anaheim Servite from Orange Lutheran.

"There's hype about how good I am, but no one has seen me play," he said.

Servite Coach Troy Thomas said Taula was his team's best defensive lineman last season even though he never played in a game.

His job was to emulate the opposing team's top lineman in practice. He also got to go against 6-7, 280-pound Servite tackle Matt Kalil, now a freshman at USC.

"I beat him a couple times, but he got me," Taula said. "It was good experience."

Taula will finally make his varsity debut on Sept. 5 against Santa Fe Springs St. Paul, and Servite coaches can't wait to turn him loose.

"Every week he'd simulate the best defensive lineman, and every week we thought he was better than the guy we faced," Thomas said.

Combining quickness and power, Taula has options when trying to get through or around blockers.

"That's what makes him special," Thomas said. "He can power you, and he's athletic. He's got a little wiggle. With a defensive lineman, you get them either fast or powerful. What separates great defensive linemen is a guy who can do both."

Taula played on Orange Lutheran's freshman and junior varsity teams, but a broken arm and broken thumb limited his playing time. That didn't stop him from making an impression on varsity Coach Jim Kunau, who called him one of the best players from Orange Lutheran's class of 2010.

But Taula was asked to leave school after a disciplinary incident that he blames on himself.

"God gave me an obstacle to go through and I failed," he said. "Then he gave me a second chance to go to Servite to prove myself as a football player and student.

"I was on the wrong track. It was my fault. I've changed a lot. It was sort of a wake-up call for me."

For the last year, Thomas said Taula has been a model student on and off the field.

"He's a fun kid to be around," he said. "He knows when to have fun and when to work. He's got this big smile."

Taula's smile comes out when he successfully downs a quarterback. Sacks give him great pleasure.

"I get this tingling feeling," he said.

Taula knows how to turn up the intensity during a game.

"I'm a nice guy -- except on the field," he said. "Then nobody likes me. The way I play, I never talk. I always have my game face on."

When he went to Texas for a two-week trip last June to visit a cousin, it came as no surprise that a high school football coach suggested he stay.

"The coach kept talking to me, 'We'll buy you a house if you go to my school,' " Taula said. "I think he was joking."

Clearly, there's much anticipation for what Taula might be able to accomplish this season and what kind of player he really is.

"I can't wait," he said. "I just want to show how good I am."

Sunday: linebackers.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

ON THE WEB Video: To see Servite's Kirifi Taula in action, go to latimes.com/highschools.

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