2020 Hawaii Football Position Breakdown: Defensive Line


October 5, 2020. HONOLULU, NCAA football practice at the University of Hawaii Manoa Campus.

A new year, a new coaching staff, and with it a new defensive scheme. The Rainbow Warrior defensive line is ready to rock and roll in head coach Todd Graham‘s “War Dog” defense. Nearly a dozen upperclassmen are back to fortify the UH line and are joined by a bevy of newcomers.

“It’s a very promising group and we have some good, solid depth,” says defensive line coach Dan Phillips.


 Defensive Line Ht  Wt Cl  2019 Stats
  Makai Manuwai  6-1 280 Sr. 6 tkls, 0.5 TFL
  DJuan Matthews  5-11 275 Sr. 17 tkls, 1 TFL
  Derek Thomas  6-3 230 Sr. 34 tkls, 2.0 TFL
  Mason Vega  6-3 265 Sr. 12 tkls, 2.5 TFL, 1 sk
  Stephan Bernal-Wendt  6-2 310 Jr. Scout team
  Alema Kapoi  6-0 270 Jr. FBS transfer; eligible in 2020
  Mason Mataafa  6-4 250 Jr. 3 GP
  Doug Russell  6-5 290 Jr.    1 GP
  Blessman Ta’ala  6-1 300 Jr. 19 tkls, 3.5 TFL, 1 sk
  Justus Tavai  6-3 295 Jr. 2 tkls, 1 sk in 3 GP
  Kamuela Borden  6-4 250 So. Redshirted
Andrew Choi6-1 230So.3 tkls, 2.5 TFL, 2.5 sk
  Jonah Kahahawai-Welch 6-2230 So. 3 tkls, 1 TFL
  Jonah Laulu 6-6280 So. 11 tkls, 6.0 TFL, 2.5 sks
  Zach Ritner 6-3240 So. 1 GP
  Foi Shaw 6-0290 So. 3 GP
  Mark Blocker II 6-3230 R-Fr. Redshirted
  Kalani Kamakawiwo’ole 6-0220 R-Fr. Redshirted
  Samson Siilata 6-3255 R-Fr. Redshirted


 Defensive Line Ht  Wt Cl Hometown (Last School)
 John Tuitupou 6-4 300 Sr.  Vaitogi, American Samoa (East LA College)
 Johnny Morrison 6-3 260 Jr. ‘Ewa Beach, O’ahu (College of the Canyons)
 Kemon Smith 6-2 290 Jr. New Orleans, La. (Blinn College)
 Ezra Evaimalo 6-1 245 Fr. Wai’anae, O’ahu (Kamehameha Schools)
Gabriel Iniguez Jr. 6-2 270 Fr. Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh HS)
 Maurice Ta’ala 6-1 305 Fr. Aua, American Samoa (Faga’itua HS)

2019 DLs lostSamiuela AkoteuKendall HuneJeffery KeeneEperone MoananuKaimana PadelloFanupo PeapealaloAzia Se’eiManly Williams

An Original War Dog: The defensive line has the luxury of learning its new defense from an expert. Dan Phillips is a 26-year coaching veteran who has worked with Todd Graham at five previous stops. He knows the War Dog defense through-and-through and what to expect of his linemen. “It’s an attacking, high-pressure style of defense. We want to be aggressive, neutralize the line of scrimmage and play on their side of the football. Our goal is to get in the backfield, make plays, and cause negative yards in order to disrupt the offense.”

Blessed To Have Blessman: With 25 starts in his first two seasons, Blessman Ta’ala has been a stalwart in the interior. Expect more of the same from the junior as Phillips praises his toughness, versatility and football acumen. “He’s very pleasant off the field, but once he puts his hat on, he’s a dog and he goes at it hard. He’s a powerful human being who really helps us with his ability to play multiple positions on the line. He’ll be a big force up front for us, particularly against the run.”

An Heir Apparent?: UH looks to fill the void of all-conference end Kaimana Padello (13.5 career sacks), one of the most disruptive forces in the Mountain West the last few seasons. Redshirt sophomore Jonah Laulu is a playmaker on the rise who could help fill that void. The 6-6, 280-pound Laulu finished second on the team last year in tackles for loss (6.0) despite limited snaps coming off the bench. Phillips says: “There’s a big up-side with Jonah. He works hard, has a great attitude and really has tremendous ability.”

Others To Watch:Derek Thomas is back for his third and final season for the Rainbow Warriors. When healthy, he’s been a proven commodity. Phillips says: “Derek is a high motor-player. He’s going to be very effective rushing the quarterback and on special teams as well. He can do a lot of things on the field for us”…Navy transfer and Kapolei native Alema Kapoi is eligible to play after sitting out last year, while Justus Tavai who played sparingly as a sophomore, looks to breakout as a junior. “Those guys have stepped up and are having a good camp,” Phillips notes…upperclassmen Mason Mataafa and DJuan Matthews and junior college transfer John Tuitupou also look to contribute on the line.

The Brotherhood: It will be double-trouble as freshman Maurice Ta’ala joins his brother Blessman Ta’ala on the line. Fellow lineman Andrew Choi and Justus Tavai also look to bolster their family legacy by following in the footsteps of former Rainbow Warrior defensive standouts Zeno Choi and Jahlani Tavai. The elder Tavai is currently playing linebacker for the NFL’s Detroit Lions.

Phillip’s Last Word: “This is a tight group. They work hard together and they take pride in everything. They’re learning at a rapid pace and they’re gonna go after it on every down. There’s a good spirit about these guys and I really enjoy them. Their attitude has been super.”

Throughout the course of fall camp, HawaiiAthletics.com will be providing a breakdown of the 2020 Rainbow Warrior football team, position-by-position, as the team prepares for its season opener at Fresno State on Saturday, Oct. 24. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Stories