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Avengers Have a Fuller Fullback

Times Staff Writer

Mathias Vavao nearly scored three touchdowns for the Avengers on receptions last season, but each time the 6-foot-5, 300-pound lineman was tackled at the one-yard line.

After a switch to fullback, one yard to the end zone no longer is the longest yard for Vavao, a player the Avenger publicity department dubs the “Samoan Semi.”

Vavao has rushed for five short touchdowns and helped the Avengers to a 3-1 start. The five-year Arena Football League veteran is looking forward to increasing his touchdown total today when the Avengers play Georgia (2-2) at Staples Center.

“To get a bunch of touchdowns is pretty cool,” said Vavao, who was born in Hawaii and played defensive tackle at Murray State.

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Last season, Vavao’s first with the Avengers, he played on the offensive line and had two sacks, blocked a kick and batted down a pass as a nose guard. He arrived at training camp this year expecting to continue in both roles.

The Avengers, however, were short-handed at fullback. Chad Dukes, who scored 12 touchdowns last season, had been released. The Avengers agreed to terms with Wes Ours, but Ours subsequently signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Avenger Coach Ed Hodgkiss said assistant head coach Brett Winter suggested switching Vavao to fullback.

When starter Lonnie Ford suffered a high ankle sprain in the second game against San Jose, Vavao moved into the lineup.

“When I first got in the league, the fullbacks all weighed 235,” said Hodgkiss, who has coached in the AFL since 1997. “They’ve consistently gotten bigger because people are looking for protection now.

“You don’t see any guys under 250 now. Most are in the 260 to 280 range. Mathias is one of those unique guys that is over 300 pounds and very athletic. Right now, he’s probably the best one-yard option in the league.”

Quarterback Tony Graziani said Vavao provides a punishing presence as a blocker and ballcarrier.

“Anytime you have someone that big, he definitely shuts down the middle and helps set up the pocket,” Graziani said. “When we’re at the one-yard line, it’s a straight dive and other teams just have to try to stop him.”

Vavao, who occasionally played running back in high school, is still struggling a bit on defense, where he was moved to linebacker.

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“I’m kind of slow back there, but I’m learning,” he said.

If Ford is activated soon, he could replace Vavao in the starting lineup. Vavao said that would be no problem.

“I see myself as a swing man,” he said. “I’ve been in this league long enough to know that it doesn’t matter if you start, you’re still going to play.

“If Lonnie comes back and it’s best for the team that he starts, that’s fine with me.”

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Graziani, listed as questionable early in the week because of knee and ankle injuries suffered against Chicago last week, will start against Georgia.

Rookie Ryan Helming is the first backup, though Helming is nursing a foot injury that may require surgery next week.

Brian Mann is the third quarterback. The Avengers worked out former Michigan quarterback Scott Driesbach and former Idaho quarterback John Welsh this week.

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Fans driving to today’s game are advised to take the following routes to Staples Center because of street closures for the Los Angeles Marathon:

From the North: Take 110 Freeway South and exit at Olympic Boulevard. Make a left from the off ramp and a left at 11th Street.

From the East: Take 10 Freeway West, transition to the 110 North and exit at Pico Boulevard. Go straight until 11th and make a right.

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From the South: Take 110 North, transition to the 10 West, and exit at Pico. Go straight until 11th and make a right.

From the West: Take 10 East and exit at Grand Avenue. Go to Grand and turn left. Turn right at Venice Boulevard, get back on the 10 East, stay in the right lane and exit at Pico. Go straight until 11th and make a right.

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AVENGERS TODAY

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vs. Georgia, noon

Site--Staples Center.

Radio--XTRA (690 & 1150).

TV--Channel 4.

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Records--Avengers 3-1; Force 2-2.

Update--The Avengers try to get back on the winning track after losing at Chicago last week.


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