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Q&A with Arizona defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei

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Get to know the UA’s new d-line coach

Iona Uiagalelei will be the Arizona Wildcats’ defensive line coach in 2018, moving to Tucson after many years in California.

Uiagalelei was a defensive coach at Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, California for 16 years. He’s most known for coaching Seahawks star Bruce Irvin during his stint at Mt. SAC.

He spoke to the media for the first time Thursday, and here is what he had to say.

New Arizona Football defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei spoke to the media for the first time. He’s coming from the junior college ranks, which he says are way different from his new job.

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Wednesday, April 4, 2018

How’s your first spring at Arizona?

It’s going fantastic. For me it’s a little change from Junior College but everything else is pretty much the same in terms of the football, drills and practice plan and everything. I’m having fun. It’s going really great.

What’s the biggest difference between junior college and now?

Honestly, I think it’s the support in terms of academics and getting fed well. Junior college life is survival of the fittest if you know what I mean. We don’t have all of the meal tables and strength coaches but other than that the talent level is about the same.

Coming from Mt. SAC Junior College, we’re a pretty established institution in terms of athletics. A football program with three or four national championships, you know it’s a good program but the only difference here is they get fed well and all of the support academically is right there as a resource at their disposal.”

How did this whole opportunity come about?

It’s funny, I was at home and I got a call from coach Demetrice Martin (spell check). My connection with Demetrice, Coach Meat. We coached together at Mt. SAC back in ’03 and ’04. We stayed in touch and I met coach (Noel) Mazzone when Meat was at UCLA. So I get a call from Demetrice on a Monday and it was a regular call. You know every year I get a call but I’m already content. I’m good at Mt. SAC. But for some reason, the past two years I had been thinking I probably need to move up.

So the call was on time and a couple days later I was offered the job. It happened so fast, I didn’t even get to tell my wife yet. You can imagine my wife was like ‘what?!’ and my kids were like ‘no, dad we love Mt. SAC’ but you know it was time for me to. It was a good time to come to Arizona. I mean it’s a great place and Coach Sumlin is a great coach and it’s a great staff I’m working with. No egos, that’s what I love about our staff. We’re working very well together.

It’s been a limited amount of time seeing these guys but what is your first impression of some of the guys?

I think we’re pretty tough kids, we’re athletic. Up front we got some good size. Coming from junior college, when I got here they were saying we kind of small and we have to get bigger. You know I think we’re pretty big. I like the kids we have, we’re young, talented, a lot of speed. The thing is the kids have got to be able to trust me. Been doing it almost 20 years and I’ve never sugarcoated anything with the players.

As a player myself, a good coach to me is a coach that coaches me up and always tells the truth and I do the same with my players so I get the most out of them.

Do you have the defensive tackles, ends, and studs?

I got the ends, tackles and the studs are with me sometimes. I think Coach Yates is feeling more comfortable to let those kids stay with me. At times in a four-man front, the studs are down at the line with us. They got to understand what’s going on, what the tackle’s doing. A lot of times they’re with me. If they’re doing drops with coverage then they go with Coach Yates.”

How many kids is that total if you’re working with the ends, tackles and studs?

With the tackles and the ends, I think I’ve got about 15 kids. I could be wrong. With the studs I’m thinking a little over 20.”

Do you have someone helping you out with those positions?

Tevin Hood’s my [graduate assistant]. Talk about a guy that’s amped and got a lot of juice out there and flying around. Sometimes I tell him ‘hey let me get a little pint in me because I need some.’ He’s doing great and he’s helping me out.

You know the manager on the field is out there helping me set up the bags on the field. That’s one thing I’m not used to. I’m used to doing it all myself. Sometimes I’m a realtor helping them find a place to stay. Sometimes I’m a counselor helping them. So that’s what it’s like coming here it’s like ‘wow, I’ve got guys assigned to me to set the bags up?’ I love it!”

Coach, how do you feel, like with all of the junior colleges shutting down in the Phoenix area? How do you feel like you can make an impact with your connections at Mt. SAC?

Well, in terms of the schools shutting down here in Arizona, it doesn’t really affect my recruiting areas in L.A. I’ve got a great connection with a lot of the junior colleges in L.A. Plus, in just California and the Midwest, I’ve got a lot of friends that we coached together in LA and now they’re in the Midwest and Florida. I think with me being here a lot of my connections just make it easy for me.

Have you ever recruited Florida before?

Yeah at Mt. SAC, yeah.

OK, but in terms of a region is there anything that’s difficult for you?

No, a lot of times I’ve got guys over there in Florida. When I was at Mt. SAC I had former players that were from Florida and they went back and are now coaching. They’re Mt. SAC guys and they’ll tell me ‘coach I’ve got a kid, I’ve got a kid’ and I’ll tell them ‘all right send me their Hudl and we’ll take it from there.’”

How would you describe your coaching style?

Aggressive, getting after it. My style is 100 percent full go. ... A lot of the guys that played for me, I have a saying ‘we set the tone’ or ‘we clock it’

I always want to make sure my players understand the play, that they know their assignments. We review a lot, rehearse a lot, tell the guys we push it to the limits. Coming into Arizona, I didn’t know the kids did research on me. They would come to me and say ‘coach I know we’re going to be running.’ So they’re getting ready, they’re thinking we’re a cross-country team.”

I was talking to one of your former players, Bojay Filimoeatu, he said the defensive line was always the hardest working group at Mt. SAC. Is that what you’re talking about?

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I talked to the guys up here and told the guys, hey, we set the tone. You’ve got to have a motor. We’re going to be the hardest working team out there, group. We’re going to be communicating out there. We’re going to be getting after it. We’re going to be setting the tone. We’re going to be the example on defense and this team.’ That’s the mindset we try to instill on this team.”

Coach, you have a great connection with the Polynesian area with the defensive line. Is that something you want to get going at Arizona?”

Yes, definitely want to get that pipeline here in Arizona. Back in the early 90’s had some guys that played here. You know Joe Salave’a, my cousin Josef Afilli (Spell check). I even have some guys, I have a lot of family that came here as students as well. Never came here but knew about Arizona.

Getting this job, I get it. They want to get the Polynesian pipeline going again. And I said ‘hey, that’s the one thing I know how to do.’ That’s what I did at Mt. SAC. And that’s what we’re going to do at Arizona.”

Have you ever met Dick Tomey before?

Yeah, I have just once, a couple weeks ago. I’ve heard ya know he’s a known coach. That’s a legend right there. I’ve talked to him once on the field I think it was last Saturday or a couple weeks ago. It was just a pleasure ya know I only see him on TV. I definitely know about him but the opportunity to talk to him was just so awesome. Great person very low, I was super excited to meet him and hopefully I can meet him again.

Obviously, you have a connection in the Polynesian community but that doesn’t mean they’ll just automatically come here. What’s your strategy to get them here?

You know just being honest with the kids and their parents. I feel like ive built that relationship at Mt. SAC and I understand, this time in age there are Polynesian coaches everywhere now. ... But I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. I’ve established connections with Polynesian families in Hawaii, Utah, Alaska, Samoa, Tonga. I’ve established connections in Washington. By me coming here, everyone was on board.

Is your family here now or are they coming soon?

They’re actually here now for spring break. My wife and kids, four of five are here now. My son is at school in Utah. They’re here, they’re enjoying it. We’re in the process of establishing a house, trying to find a house to live. But yeah they’re here.

What the age range of the kids?

Oldest is 21, second is 18. My two oldest are girls and the other three are boys. Ages 10, eight and two. 21 to 2, we got every age guys. We got it covered.”

Bojay said that you would have the defensive line over to your house every Thursday night during the season for dinner. Why would you do that?”

A lot of the d-linemen were out-of-state kids. In junior college, they don’t eat a home-cooked meal. They eat ramen. It’s more of a Polynesian thing. A lot of those guys were related to me so I would invite them over and then it just turned into everyone. So every Thursday became a ritual.

Bruce Irvin, he would come over. Hebron Fangupo, he played in the NFL, he knows all those guys.

What’s usually on the menu?

Got to be chicken, two big platters of rice. There has to be rice, they have to eat rice with everything. Rice is a Polynesian staple.”

Do you cook?

Oh yeah. Come on look at me.

What’s your specialty?

Chicken!

How do you make it?

Boil it. Fry it. Ya know whatever man. Dip it in some Mac sauce, some ranch and you’re good.

Who are the guys that have stood out so far?

The guy everyone’s been talking about, Dereck Boles. He’s progressing, he’s been getting better. The guy that stood out to me was PJ Johnson, the JuCo transfer from Fresno. There’s also (Justin Belknap) and (Finton Connolly) and Mykee (Irving) the freshman kid, (JB Brown) from Long Beach Poly. We’ve got a good group but those guys know it’s a competition every day. Just because you started with that group the day before doesn’t mean you’re going to be in the first group the next day. We go over film and they’ve just got to compete. They’ve got to compete every day.”

Are Jalen Harris and My-King Johnson studs or ends?

They’re ends, they’re coming along. My-King and Jalen, oh Jalen is a stud. I would love to him at end with me, though. I’m battling Yates (laughing) ya know, ‘come on let me have him. Don’t make him go up field, he doesn’t have to drop (into coverage).’”

Jamardre Cobb, is he moving to d-line now?

Yeah, he’s moving to defense. He’s got some tools now, he can play. He’s just got to learn the position because he’s been playing fullback for a while. I’m excited. We have a lot of talent upfront that I can work with. The guys are buying in and they’re seeing the fruit of the hard work that they’re been putting in. I’ve only seen four practices but I can already see the improvement with the front, the d-line. Using your hands, coming off the ball. Changing direction, having to slip through a block. It’s making a difference so I’m happy.”