Idaho defensive tackle Tueni Lupeamanu will tell you he can out-throw his team’s starting quarterback, Matt Linehan.
Given Lupeamanu’s resume, it’s possible.
Lupeamanu was a quarterback, linebacker and punter at Herriman High in Utah. In 2012, Lupeamanu set a then-school record with 327 passing yards against East High in the state playoffs.
But once recruiting began, Lupeamanu was placed in the ever-enigmatic “athlete” territory. He came to Idaho for a visit and said he worked out for 15 minutes each in three different position groups: tight end, fullback and defensive line.
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Lupeamanu, who came in weighing about 245 pounds, knew he was going to keep getting bigger. And bigger. And bigger. So the Vandal coaching staff stuck him on the defensive line.
Four years later, Lupeamanu has rewarded the coaching staff for taking a chance on him despite not knowing exactly how he fit. He played one snap as a defensive lineman in his prep career.
Lupeamanu, now 6-foot-1 and 299 pounds, has five sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2016 while making the All-Sun Belt second team. But that hasn’t stopped him from attempting to live his quarterback dreams. He’s not backing down from his claim of an elite arm.
“I’ll tell you it’s me. If you call (Linehan) and ask him, he’ll probably tell you it’s me also,” said Lupeamanu, who estimated he can throw a ball 60 yards. “I got some juice going a little bit. I didn’t lose it all.”
Save for a few throws during drills, Lupeamanu isn’t playing quarterback anymore. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t leading like one.
“It’s very rare to find a defensive lineman who leads. Usually it’s the quarterbacks,” defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “Our football team responds to him … it’s not fake. It comes through.”
Lupeamanu has been one of the key cogs in the Vandals’ 2016 turnaround. His numbers clearly show a player who contributed to the team’s 8-4 record and berth in Thursday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Colorado State (5 p.m., ESPN). But his best attributes are the things he has provided for the team off the field.
“He’s been the leader. He is the leader of this team. There’s no question about it. He leads by example,” head coach Paul Petrino said. “He’s the vocal leader. He’s the one that will step up. Tueni should get all kinds of pats on the back from everyone who sees him.”
When Lupeamanu, who originally committed to Utah State, was given the chance to visit Idaho, he did not know much about the program’s intricacies. Moscow might as well have been a foreign country.
“Moscow, Idaho? I thought that was in Russia,” Lupeamanu said with a chuckle.
But in four years, Lupeamanu has gone from a tourist to an ambassador. Breske has been in Moscow for two seasons, and he has seen Lupeamau grow tremendously. And that’s not just in terms of his size. He is the pulse of an Idaho team whose heart hasn’t stopped beating.
“He’s so much more confident (than last year),” Breske said. “The belief in yourself, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Lupeamanu made leadership a priority the moment he stepped on campus. Regardless of where he was going to play, Lupeamanu came to Idaho with one goal in mind: to be The Guy in the best and worst of times, even if it wasn’t always pretty. If he was unsure of his abilities on the defensive line, he was still going to make his presence felt.
“I always wanted to be that guy for our program. I tried playing as much as I could. ... I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing on the field,” Lupeamanu said. “(But) I always wanted to lead people in the right direction.”
Idaho won six games in Lupeamanu’s first three seasons. The program found out it was transitioning to the FCS in the offseason. Even this season started slowly, with a 2-3 record through five games.
But the Vandals took all the punches thrown their way. And that is due in no small part to Lupeamanu.
“The thing with me, I’ve always been a team guy,” Tupeamanu said. “And I’ve always wanted to do whatever the team needed me to do.”
Lupeamanu’s versatility and athleticism have helped him adjust on the defensive line. His speed and lateral quickness are better than many linemen who have played in the trenches their whole lives. He’s even moonlighted as a fullback this season, scoring two touchdowns on six carries.
“Me personally, I like to play inside more,” Lupeamanu said. “I try to use my speed and quickness compared to the bigger dudes in the middle.”
As he prepares for his final game as a Vandal, Lupeamanu has done his best to savor every moment while completely avoiding the fact that it will be his last collegiate game. While he would love a trick play to be called his way, he’s more interested in leaving Idaho a winner. It’s been his and Petrino’s plan from the start.
“I’ve always hoped and prayed that we’d be able to make it,” Tupeamanu said. “Petrino told me (when I was recruited), ‘We’re going to go to a bowl game, and I want you to be a part of it.’ ”
If the opportunity presents itself, he hopes to make football a part of his future as well. A solid effort against Colorado State won’t hurt those chances.
“I’m just trying to prepare myself to have the best game of my life,” Lupeamanu said. “But the NFL has definitely always been the dream for me. I don’t want to stop playing.”
Does he have a chance? His defensive coordinator knows better than to doubt him.
“I know he has the heart, and I know he has the determination,” Breske said. “If he gets the opportunity, he will give it his best.”
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
▪ Teams: Idaho (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) vs. Colorado State (7-5, 5-3 Mountain West)
▪ Time: 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 22
▪ Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf), Boise
▪ TV: ESPN (David Neal, Matt Stinchcomb, Oliuvia Harlan)
▪ Radio: 630 AM
▪ Tickets: Available at ticketmaster.com
▪ Vegas: Colorado State by 13 1/2
▪ Coaches: Idaho, Paul Petrino (fourth year; 14-33); Colorado State, Mike Bobo (second year; 14-11)
▪ Bowl records: Idaho 2-0, Colorado State 6-9
▪ Series record: Colorado State leads 4-3