Imagine the audacity of starting a 6-foot-1, 210-pound freshman at left offensive tackle against Santa Ana Mater Dei in the Southern Section Division 1 playoff semifinals?
Corona Centennial offensive line coach Kunane Burns offers no apology for inserting 15-year-old AJ Vaipulu into the starting lineup last season. He lacked experience. He lacked size. And yet, with each week, through the Big VIII League games and three Division 1 playoff games, Vaipulu got better and better.
“We brought him up originally as a backup and as it proceeded, AJ started to make an impact and we gave him an opportunity to compete for playing time and it evolved into him winning the competition,” he said. “As a freshman, he had a unique sense of toughness.”
Maybe he learned toughness from wrestling his now 300-pound older brother, Solo, at home or watching Solo block for the Huskies.
“You get to hit somebody and not get into trouble for it,” AJ says of his love for football.
He’s moving to center this season at 6-2, 235 pounds, and the Huskies will have the rarest of the rare by 2021 — a four-year offensive line starter.
“It’s a big difference being in a freshman game vs. a varsity game, but it was constant growth we saw week to week,” Burns said. “He’s eventually going to fill into his body.”
Vaipulu loves competition, plus he’s athletic — he also plays rugby — and backs down from nobody. During the spring, he went up against a senior nose guard. It got a little heated.
“He held his ground,” Burns said of Vaipulu.
Vaipulu learned plenty from the weekly challenges last season, whether taking on future college players at Harbor City Narbonne or Mater Dei, or when facing off against future Trojan Drake Jackson in practice.
“It was a challenge and it was different,” he said. “It was competing at a different level. It was constantly learning on the go.”
Against Mater Dei, in a 48-14 loss, the lesson he learned was a valuable one.
“Just never give up until the last whistle is blown,” he said. “I’m focused on gaining more weight, gaining more power, gaining more speed.”
There’s lots of outstanding offensive linemen this season, from Stanford-bound Drake Metcalf of Bellflower St. John Bosco to Michigan-bound Jeffrey Persi of San Juan Capistrano JSerra.
Burns is convinced Vaipulu will one day fulfill the potential he showed as a freshman starter on varsity. His brother is already a starting offensive lineman at Hawaii.
“AJ was undersized with most opponents last year, but he never shied away from that competition,” he said. “We had quite a few battles. We were at Narbonne and were struggling running the ball and he took a licking. I just knew this is a kid we want because he keeps fighting and has a willingness to get better.
“He lost some battles and won some. It was his ability to not let the moment get bigger than it was. What’s impressive is his maturity. We had some older guys that let the moment get to them. Not him. He really enjoys the competition. When his time here at Centennial is all done, he’s going to be one of the good ones. He may not be the biggest lineman we’ve had but he’ll be one of the most athletic and toughest ones.”
Top offensive linemen
Player, School | Ht. | Wt. | Yr. | Comment
Angel Hernandez, Mayfair | 6-3 | 295 | Sr. | Has gotten stronger, more physical
Tai Marks, Mater Dei; 6-3 |313 | Sr. | Don’t let his smile fool you how nasty he can be
Drake Metcalf, St. John Bosco | 6-3 | 270 | Sr. | Stanford commit is relentless
Myles Murao, Mater Dei | 6-3 | 280 | Sr. | Washington commit is back from injury
Jeffrey Persi, JSerra | 6-7 | 265 | Sr. | Michigan commit has size to dominate
Jacob Nunez, Lompoc | 6-4 | 285 | Sr. | He’s a four-year starter
JaCobe Simms, Gardena Serra | 6-2 | 305 | Jr. | Made huge strides in off season
Nofoafia Tulafono, Oak Hills | 6-1 | 305 | Sr. |Offensive guard with strength
AJ Vaipulu, Corona Centennial | 6-2 | 235 | So. | Started at left tackle as a freshman
Justin Williams, Tesoro | 6-4 | 270 | Sr. | One of the best blockers in Orange County