James Aiono loves Utah football, but he made it a point to avoid watching the Utes' football games in 2009. It hurt too much for him to follow the contests and wonder how or if he could have helped the Utes win.
"I knew I should have been there contributing somehow," he said. "It was too hard to watch so I stayed away from the TVs as much as I could."
Now, Aiono is immersed in the Utes, not avoiding them. The former Murray High player who originally signed with Utah in 2007 has been enrolled since January and is finally back on the football field as the Utes start their spring practice.
He is a little nervous too because he hasn't played in a year. The 6-foot-3, 296-pound Aiono thought he'd be able to join the Utes for the 2009 season after two years at Snow College, but had to take another math class which delayed his entrance into Utah until January. He took the class at Salt Lake Community College and put his studies, not training, first.
"Being away from the game, I never had a specific workout program and I knew I was getting out of shape," he said. "But I wanted to focus on that class and I knew the team would whip me into shape."
They are on their way to do doing so. Aiono has lost about six pounds since enrolling, but still has another 10 he wants to drop to help him regain the form he had when he was the top-rated Juco player in the country at Snow College.
"I want to say I imagine myself getting right back in there again but I doubt it will be that smooth," he said. "It'll take me a few weeks to get used to the weights of the pads again. But I am definitely excited. I know where I am and where I want to be."
Aiono knows expectations are high for him given his recruiting ranking, which can be a good and bad thing, he said.
"It's a little bit intimidating to have that type of recognition," he said. "It does put a target on your back and weight on your shoulders knowing how good people expect you to be but it's something I want to live up to and I appreciate it."
What could slow Aiono's progress some is switching from defensive end to defensive tackle. Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake wants Aiono there where he believes he'll fit in well with returners Sealver Siliga (6-3, 300), Dave Kruger (6-5, 272) and Neli A'asa (6-2, 300).
"He still has some work to do, but the guy has some great athleticism and quickness," Sitake said. "He can play tackle and end. We have a lot of versatility and we are going to get the best guys on the field and if he has a great off-season its going to be hard to keep him off the field."
The plan sounds like a good one for Aiono, who for now is just glad he doesn't have to be on the sidelines any longer."I never felt so far away from the game as I did the last semester," he said. "At times it all seemed like a hassle and football seemed so far away from me, but it will all be worth it."
Spring camp schedule
(All practices are open to the public)
Tuesday 3-5 p.m., practice fields
Thursday 3-5 p.m., practice fields
Saturday 10-Noon, practice fields
March 16 3-5 p.m. practice fields
March 18 3-5 p.m., practice fields