East’s Siaki Ika is Utah’s biggest recruit as Alabama, Washington, Utah and USC fight for his signature

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High's Siaki Ika is ranked No. 1 among high school football recruits by rivals in the state and 247Sports. He has offers including Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Wisconsin and eight Pac-12 schools including Utah. The trend has been for top players to leave the state to play in college — is Ika the next?

A teenager wanted by some of the most legendary names in college football wasn’t carrying himself as a highly recruited star on this hot July day. A mini-mountain of a defensive lineman standing at 6-foot-3 and 347 pounds, Siaki Ika walked through the East High hallway on a mission, not to get an extra workout in or have a snack.

It was time for a senior class retreat, and he wasn’t going to miss it for anything.

Such behavior is atypical for a recruit who has Alabama, Southern California, Washington, Ohio State and Utah all clamoring for his signature on a National Letter of Intent. But Siaki Ika is not your normal recruit. He has remained remarkably grounded throughout the recruiting process and when you pester him about all the attention and adulation, and the time demands of talking with coaches, his reply is cool and calculated.

“The offers are great to have and it’s an honor,” Ika said. “But, I have to have a plan.”

And with that, he turns his attention away from the recruiting process and to his current obsession — beating Bingham and establishing the Leopards as the best team in Class 6A.

But this is who Ika is off the field — a quiet and humble kid who is aware of his talent, but aware that a misstep can take away everything in an instant. Instead of basking in the attention, his stardom makes him work harder. And while he embraces football as his ticket to bigger and better things, he’s worked even harder at being a well-rounded student.

“The thing with Siaki, he’s had an excellent supporting cast around him,” East coach Brandon Matich said. “They say that it takes a village to raise a kid, and Siaki’s literally been raised by an Ika village. If he steps out of his lane academically, his whole family is at the school meeting with counselors, trying to figure out how to get him back on track. It’s all kept him humble and on the right path.”

Ika’s talent on the field was apparent early on. Four years ago, Matich watched Ika during a sweltering July workout, and he simply knew. By the end of the day, he sat Ika down and “told him he was going to be the highest recruited kid I’ve ever had,” Matich said.

That’s exactly where Ika’s story has gone in four years. To look at him on the football field is to marvel at his physicality. He’s often too big for his jersey. Vertically, he towers over teammates, with the muscle mass that suggests he is always one of the best players on the field.

It often takes two offensive linemen to block him, which unlocks Matich’s beloved 4-2-5 alignment. In an era where the spread offense reigns, East can often commit more defensive backs to coverage because Ika soaks up blockers like a sponge. The Leopards’ defensive ends often have only one blocker to beat on their way to opposing quarterbacks thanks to Ika’s presence, and East linebackers are often free to roam and stuff the run game.

Ika is more advanced than other recruits because of his nimble feet. See, here’s the thing: Many defensive linemen are big, and with some strength mixed in can be run stuffers. But Ika’s not just big and strong. Because of his footwork, he can attack an offensive lineman with a bullrush, or spin past him and dance on his way to sacking a quarterback. His quickness off the ball creates advantages many his size don’t get.

Because of these attributes, Ika has been compared to some of the great defensive tackles to come through the Utah high school football scene: Think of players such as Star Lotulelei and Haloti Ngata who have gone on to NFL fame and fortunes. Think of recent greats still in college football, such as USC redshirt freshman Jay Tufele.

“He has a chance to make it to the highest level of the game,” Matich said of Ika. “And I think he has a chance to be just as good or better than they are, which is humbling to think about. You simply can’t teach his size. He’s a big, giant kid. He has great footwork and he’s so explosive. He’s a sweet, humble, beautiful kid on the street. But, when he puts that helmet on, he’s a competitive, nasty kid. He has as good a chance as any to get to the highest level.”

Because Ika — who was once committed to BYU but then de-committed — is so highly recruited, one question comes up: Will he stay close to home for college? It’s been a big issue with heralded recruits in the past; they seldom stay local. Since 2008, the top-rated recruit by 247Sports.com in the state of Utah has gone out of state all but two times.

When Tufele was one of the most sought-after high school players in the country, USC signed him with relative ease. The No. 2 recruit in Tufele’s class was Salem Hills linebacker Porter Gustin; he also signed with USC and has become a standout linebacker with the Trojans, although he recently suffered a knee injury.

The University of Utah eagerly welcomed Gary Andersen back to its staff with the goal of protecting its recruiting home base. Andersen — a close friend of Matich — is widely regarded as one of the premier recruiters in the western United States. But while the Utes remain firmly in the chase for Ika, it will be difficult for them to beat out Washington, USC and Alabama.

“It’s tough, just like it’s tough for California schools to fend off other schools [coming to] California,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said when asked about protecting the state from outside schools. “Nobody just absolutely puts a fence around their state or area and gets everybody. That just doesn’t happen. The talent level in Utah is such that it’s attracting more quote-unquote big-time programs.”

For his part, Ika said he likes each school on his list for differing reasons. One of his best friends plays at Washington. He and Tufele have formed a big brother-little brother relationship, although the East-Bingham rivalry gets a lot of attention whenever the two talk. Alabama is simply “Bama” to Ika, the blue-blood school every kid dreams of attending. Utah has close proximity, and Andersen’s already made an impression. And that’s even before an offer from Ohio State arrived last week.

Whichever school ultimately lands Ika is getting a well-rounded person. He’s a singer, and two years ago performed the national anthem in full uniform before an East game. His parents moved back to Tonga to run a family business, so Ika’s been raised by his siblings.

When will Ika decide to commit? He didn’t give a timetable for making a choice. What he really wants is for the season to start, and for the Leopards to make a run at a state title. If that can happen, Ika says, everything else falls into place.

“We’re young this year but we’re going to be really talented,” Ika said. “I think this year is going to be great. It’s my last year with my friends and I want to make the best of it. There’s no better way than to end it with a state title.”

Heading Elsewhere

Where the No. 1 ranked recruit in Utah according to 247Sports.com’s annual rankings went to school

2018 • Penei Sewell, OL, Desert Hills: Oregon

2017 • Jay Tufele, DT, Bingham: Southern Cal

2016 • Simi Fehoko, WR, Brighton: Stanford

2015 • Osa Masina, LB, Bingham: Southern Cal

2014 • Dalton Schultz, TE, Bingham: Stanford

2013 • Cooper Bateman, QB, Cottonwood: Alabama

2012 • Troy Hinds, RB, Davis: BYU

2011 • Harvey Langi, LB, Bingham: Utah (transferred to BYU after freshman season)

2010 • Ricky Heimuli, DT, Brighton: Oregon

2009 • Xavier Su’a-Filo, OL, Timpview: UCLA

2008 • Lynn Katoa, WR, Cottonwood: Colorado