There’s a familiar sight back on the UCLA defensive line this fall: A 5-foot-11, 275-pound, long-haired menace.
That would be ex-Lompoc High star Ainuu Taua, the former 2014 Lee Central Coast News MVP and revitalized Bruin defensive lineman, who spent most of his 2016-17 season as a fullback.
Gone will be the days of Taua plowing through defenders to clear the way for his Bruin running back teammates. Now, he’s back at aiming to pound running backs into the grass.
Taua tells The Times that he has no issue with moving around – plus playing all four spots on the Bruin defensive line.
“It’s fun because I get to experience life on the edge (as a defensive end) or move inside,” Taua said by phone after Tuesday’s practice.
The transition back to the defensive line occurred toward the end of last season, as the Bruins shifted over to a spread look with no fullback lined up in the backfield, Taua said. He’s not only putting the white practice uniform back on, which is the color of the Bruin defenders on the practice field, but Taua is back working with the man who recruited him to Westwood for one whole year this fall: Defensive line coach Angus McClure.
“We’ve been cool,” Taua said. “I love the way he coaches. I believe in him and he’s the main reason why I play on the defensive line. Plus I love how he puts dudes in the league.”
One former McClure prodigy was Takkarist McKinley, who went on to the Atlanta Falcons as the 26th overall pick in April’s NFL Draft.
But while Taua is back with McClure on the defensive side of the football, there’s questions about whether or not head coach Jim Mora will be back on the Bruins’ sidelines. The sixth-year Bruins coach has been placed on the hot seat this season following last year’s 4-8 record. Plus, after going a combined 20-6 from 2013 to ’14, the Bruins have gone 12-13 since.
Taua, though, sees a head coach who is still attacking each practice day with a workman-like approach and with zero distractions about his future.
“He’s still attacking it and he’s hard at work,” Taua said. “He has a whole new staff. So maybe that will help him and us. But everyone loves him here.”
Taua, a 2014 graduate of LHS, is returning to a spot that turned him into a wanted prospect on the recruiting trail during his days in the Braves' blue and white. He collected 130 total tackles and 21 sacks in his three years on varsity while anchoring the Braves’ front line.
Yet, Taua said he feels like his older brother Vai helped open the recruiting well for the Taua household – from Ainuu all the way to his younger brother Toa, who has seen his recruiting spike over the last three years.
“Vai had one offer out of high school, but with what he put out there, it got a lot of coaches’ attention when I was in high school. College football coaches started offering me because they found out I was his brother,” Taua said. “They believed I had the same work ethic as him.”
Now, in his spare time, Taua likes watching highlight film on the latest national recruit on West College Avenue: Toa, a now a Lompoc High senior.
“His film is ridiculous,” Taua said. “I love his film.”
He’s also shared this recent advice to his class of 2018 sibling: “I told him to enjoy high school and don’t rush through it. Every Friday night will be his last one. Enjoy it.”
Taua and the Bruins will open the 2017-18 college football season against Texas A&M at home in a special Sunday, Sept. 3, contest at the Rose Bowl. The game will be televised on Fox.