UCLA center Kai Maiava sees a future different from the past
He looks at his flat feet as he tells you what will happen this fall.
“It won’t be like last year.”
He says it again, like a cadence, only this time he laughs, as if last year was something of a humorous, far-fetched tale.
“It won’t be like last year.”
Then Kai Maiava, a 6-foot-1, 309-pound center who might be the UCLA football team’s biggest off-season acquisition, looks up, indicating he’s not joking.
He will have a say in the matter as the expected leader of the offensive line and as a potential building block for the future.
As UCLA prepares to open official practice Monday, there appears nowhere to go but up for a line that last season was among the worst units in the country.
The Bruins averaged only 82.75 rushing yards a game -- 2.62 yards a carry -- and gave up 35 sacks. The rankings indicate the worst: of 119 major-college teams, UCLA ranked 110th in allowing sacks, 111th in total offense and 116th in yards rushing per game.
The players seem to know these numbers by heart. In conversation, they recite them as if they are written on the inside of their helmets.
“The coaches are always reminding us, ‘What was it, 116th in the country?’ ” says redshirt senior guard Nick Ekbatani, noting the rushing offense’s ranking.
Ekbatani is the only returning lineman to have started all 12 games last year. And to be sure, there were injuries and, even then, inexperience that contributed to those results.
“What we went through last year, no team could survive,” says offensive line coach Bob Palcic, who is now in his second year.
There were nine starting combinations in 12 games.
“Some weeks, I couldn’t have told you until the day of the game who was starting where,” says Kevin Prince, UCLA’s quarterback.
Maiava watched it all from the sideline, sitting out the year because of NCAA transfer rules after he left Colorado.
The last college football play he took part in was on Dec. 31, 2007, as Colorado tried some last-second desperation laterals against Alabama in the Independence Bowl.
The play didn’t make it to midfield and Alabama won, 30-24.
Maiava played one season for Colorado but says, “I always wanted to be a Bruin,” and he laughs again because of the reason why and how things worked out.
The way he tells it, he wanted to play football for UCLA the day his older brother, Kaluka, signed to play linebacker at USC.
That way, he could go against his brother, whom he had gone against for years growing up.
“I probably would have screwed up a play just so I could pancake him,” Maiava says.
But for a long time, he had only two scholarship offers out of high school: New Mexico State and Idaho. Then, the day before signing day, Colorado called. Another recruit was wavering, and they wanted Maiava to wait a day.
Scott Mahoney, Maiava’s dad, who played offensive line at Colorado from 1969-71, told the coaches his son wasn’t waiting, that they had to offer him now. They did.
He was rated the lowest among the eight offensive linemen who signed with the team in 2007, but by the fifth game -- a 27-24 upset of then-No. 3-ranked Oklahoma -- he had joined the starting unit. And at the end of the season he was chosen a freshman all-American.
Despite that success, during the off-season he was asked to move to a fullback/tight end position, a request that may have changed the course of his college career.
Within months, Maiava had decided to leave Colorado, though he says it was to be closer to his family.
Originally from Hawaii, he enjoys the West Coast lifestyle. He bums rides. He loves Bob Marley. He wears sandals everywhere, and even did so in the snow when he was at Colorado.
“Off the field he’s totally chill,” Prince says.
On the field? Different story.
“He’s got this intensity,” Ekbatani says, his voice trailing off.
“Don’t push his buttons,” says senior defensive tackle Brian Price, who goes against Maiava in practice and says the lineman has “vice grips” for hands, which isn’t implausible considering Maiava was an amateur boxer of some renown.
“There were times at Colorado when I felt like I didn’t know him,” Mahoney says of his son’s mean streak on the field.
“I don’t like to be pushed around,” Maiava says. “And I don’t like negative plays.”
He attributes his mean streak to having older brothers and also from a childhood that included eight years spent living in shipping containers while the family tried to get its finances in order so it could build a house.
There was no running water, no electricity.
“He had it tough growing up,” his dad says.
This season, Maiava says he wants to pound the ball the first few games, run straight up the middle again and again so teams know last year was an aberration.
“Pound the rock,” he says.
His desire is in line with the plans of Coach Rick Neuheisel, who at Pacific 10 Conference media day said, “We’re going to be able to run the ball or die trying this year.”
It is a tried-and-true cliche that a team’s success hinges on the offensive line.
“You can only go as far as your offensive line can take you,” says Norm Chow, UCLA’s offensive coordinator.
Last year, that wasn’t very far. This year?
Recall Maiava’s promise: “It won’t be like last year.”