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Ainuu Taua, UCLA’s long-haired 294-pound fullback, is a hirsute handful for tacklers

Ainuu Taua has made a successful transition from nose tackle to fullback at UCLA.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Hairy situations used to be part of the football game plans at Lompoc High. The long, flowing locks that billowed out the back of Ainuu Taua’s helmet and down the back of his jersey were essential.

Wearing his hair in braids, as Taua occasionally did, would get him upbraided.

“You intimidate everybody,” Coach Andrew Jones told his star defensive lineman of the look Jones preferred with his hair down. “We’re already up 7-0 with you walking on the field with your hair flying around.”

UCLA might feel similarly about Taua after converting him to fullback. The redshirt sophomore made the first memorable play of training camp when he caught a short pass and leveled a defensive back who ripped off Taua’s helmet, giving onlookers a full view of all that hair flapping in the breeze as Taua charged downfield.

Taua made another big play the next day, catching a touchdown pass on a wheel route. He celebrated by leaping for a chest bump with a teammate who seemed every bit as enthused.

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It’s all part of the new look of the Bruins’ offense, which features a 5-foot-11, 294-pound whirlwind with a lineman’s belly and hair that has not been sheared since he was in the second grade.

“I feel like I could be a special kind of fullback that could bring energy and some spark to a team,” Taua said. “Go out there and be the dog.”

Early reviews have been of the two-thumbs-up variety. Quarterback Josh Rosen described Taua as “hilarious” and center Scott Quessenberry called him “fun to watch.”

Taua came to UCLA to harass, not entertain, the offense as a nose tackle. Coach Jim Mora asked him to switch to fullback last spring as part of the Bruins’ conversion to a more physically imposing offense.

The transition hasn’t been daunting for someone who dabbled at fullback and tight end through high school, where the two-way standout mastered an offense similar in style to what UCLA intends to run this season. Taua figures to mostly help with blocking and carry the ball in short-yardage situations.

Then again, his highlight plays in training camp have given Mora reason to consider making him a regular target.

“If you keep seeing those types of things out of a guy like Ainuu,” Mora said, “you go, ‘Maybe we’ll throw him the ball in the flat and let him turn it up and see if a 180-pound corner wants to tackle a 294-pounder.’ ”

The only thing Taua takes as seriously as his hair is his number. The one time he can remember wearing anything besides No. 35 was when his older brother Uso commandeered it during the season they overlapped in high school. Sisters Lalolagi and Tasi also have worn the number while playing volleyball and softball.

Taua once tried to wear a different jersey in a youth league game before he realized the significance of the numbers stitched across his chest. His father, Taua Taua, refused to let him play.

“They went out and got it and put it on the credit card,” recalled Taua Taua, who had worn No. 35 while playing at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. “It means a lot to me, the family number. Keep the tradition going.”

Securing the number at UCLA was part of Ainuu’s commitment to the Bruins. Several other big-time college teams passed on him because he was sub-6 feet, but Mora was sold on his outsized resolve.

Named after a Samoan chief, Taua said his favorite childhood pastime involved strapping on his pads and tussling in the backyard with his uncles and three brothers. His oldest brother, Vai, was briefly a running back for the Seattle Seahawks and is now a graduate assistant coach at East Los Angeles College.

Taua was already an unlikely story on the day he was born. His mother, Faletui, suffered health complications after her second child that included having one ovary removed and the other being badly damaged. Doctors told her there was a 99.9% chance she would never get pregnant again and even if she did, she would never be able to carry the baby to full term.

“When she got pregnant the doctor told her not to get excited and then out came Ainuu,” Taua Taua said, recalling the 10-pound, 7-ounce baby that was the biggest in the family. “He’s just a special kid to me and my wife.”

Little Ainuu grew up with a bald head featuring a wisp of hair before deciding to let it grow out. He usually wears it in a bun underneath his helmet while playing football, but it still spills out onto his shoulders.

“It makes me look skinnier,” Taua said of his preferred look.

He let his hair down the last few days of camp and the wavy strands stretched to the middle of his back. The last time he fully straightened his hair was the sixth grade. It reached his waist.

Opposing high school players beaten by Taua’s bull rushes used to retaliate by yanking his voluminous hair, which wasn’t a smart long-term strategy.

“My head hit the ground before my feet did,” Taua said. “I was tripping. I was pretty mad after that.”

Taua isn’t sure how much his hair weighs but doesn’t consider it heavy because his neck muscles have long grown accustomed to carrying the load. He hasn’t visited a barber in more than a decade because he doesn’t want to regret how it might turn out.

His current look has led to a thicket of success.

“If you have hair coming out of your helmet like that,” Jones said, “you better play pretty well. He’s backed it up.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch


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