The talk with coach Kyle Whittingham came first for VJ Fehoko.
That was followed by a conversation with defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, then came the shoulder surgery last December. Piece by piece, Utah’s middle linebacker began building the necessary blocks to compete for a starting job in 2013.
By the spring, Fehoko was studying film and taking notes on Ray Lewis, the way the future Ravens Hall of Famer played and the way he took care of himself away from the football field. He changed his diet and lost 20 pounds. By the beginning of fall camp, the junior from Hawaii was noticeably quicker without sacrificing his strength — he was already, arguably, the strongest pound-for-pound player on the team.
If everything comes together, this season could mark the football rebirth of Fehoko, who arrived on campus as a heralded four-star recruit and All-American, but struggled to adjust to the speed and power of the college game. His play has been uneven for two seasons, but he still has a confidence that never left. He vows to lead a linebacker group that is a question mark after it underperformed in 2012.
“We’re going to be better this season, and I’m going to be better this season,” Fehoko said. “I knew that I had to make improvements. College football punched me in the mouth. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I came out of high school. I’ve just tried to do anything that I could to make myself a better player.”
The immediate result is a smaller, lighter Fehoko flying around and making tackles. Whittingham and Sitake have heaped praise on his work ethic. Teammates have taken notice and are following his lead. If the season were to begin today, Whittingham said, Fehoko would be the starter.
Last year, he started six games. His career has been a merry-go-round of sorts, with him playing multiple positions.
Without Star Lotulelei taking on blockers in front of him, the onus is now on Fehoko to make plays from sideline to sideline. That’s why he’s worked so hard on becoming faster and quicker.
“The linebackers as a whole need to tackle better and that’s the challenge they face going into the season,” Sitake said. “We told VJ what he [had] to do in order to get better in the offseason and he’s done that. He deserves a lot of credit and he’s playing very well so far in camp.”
Fehoko wants to lead the Utes defensively. Yes, there’s Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard, two upperclassmen who will no doubt be looked upon for production and inspiration from their teammates. But Fehoko knows that the middle linebacker is the centerpiece of the defense. He knows his teammates and coaches also will be looking at him.
Fehoko remembers his formative years in Hawaii, when his father Vili would wake him and his brothers well before dawn to run on the local beach. His pain threshold was established the day Vili made VJ climb a volcano rock in the rain. Halfway up, VJ slipped and fell. The father told the son not to quit. He eventually made it to the top, bruised and bloodied. Fehoko calls it one of the biggest victories of his life.
“Our family comes before everything,” Vili Fehoko said. “I’m proud of all of my boys. VJ has always been one of the leaders in our family. He wanted to play Division I football, and he’s worked hard to make it happen.”
VJ Fehoko file
• Is vying to become Utah’s starting middle linebacker
• Has two brothers who have played college football. A third has offers from Utah and Alabama.
• Was rated a four-star recruit out of high school and one of the top 150 players in the country
• Was second-team all-academic Pac-12 last season
What we learned • After reviewing tape of Tuesday’s scrimmage, the Utes said they must get better in the passing game, from running routes, to protection to tempo, if they are to improve this year.
Who was hot • Freshman quarterback Conner Manning continues to be impressive in camp and remains “in the mix” for the No. 2 position.
Who was missing • Tevin Carter, a JC transfer the Utes were hoping would get significant playing time, didn’t get his academics in order and won’t join the Utes this season.