UTSA's Maka eager to prove pundits wrong against No. 16 Louisiana

The pundits of college football don't expect Saturday's SERVPRO First Responder Bowl to be much of a game.

And Ahofitu Maka is very eager to prove them wrong.

Maka, a junior offensive lineman for the University of Texas-San Antonio and 2018 Punahou graduate, has heard much of the chatter surrounding the Roadrunners' first-ever meeting against Louisiana (9-1 overall, 7-1 Sun Belt), which is listed as a two-touchdown favorite by most Las Vegas sportsbooks.

"Analysts have already picked who they have to win the game, so that's a big chip on our shoulder and personally I like being the underdog," said Maka, a second-year starter at center for UTSA (7-4 overall, 5-2 C-USA).

The Roadrunners finished second in the Conference USA West Division and have won their last three games. A win Saturday would match the most wins in a season in the 10-year history of the program, but to do so would require a couple of yet-to-be-accomplished feats: a bowl victory and a win over a ranked team.

Louisiana, which previously went by Louisiana-Lafayette, is ranked 16th in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll and 19th by the College Football Playoff committee. It had its last game, the Sun Belt Conference championship game against Coastal Carolina, canceled last week. Consequently, the Ragin' Cajuns, who opened the year with a 14-point win at eventual-Big 12 runner-up Iowa State and are riding a six-game win streak, were declared co-champions of the Sun Belt.

Maka, for one, doesn't mind being the proverbial smaller dog in the fight.

"We've been the underdog for most of the season, so coming into this game it's nothing different: Just get to work, do our thing," said the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Maka.

After all, Maka has been overlooked for much of his football career, even back to his Punahou days. Despite being a two-year starter on the Buffanblu offensive line, he was often overshadowed by classmates Alama Uluave and Paulo Soa, who drew much of the recognition along with underclassmen Duke Clemens.

Jim Lebeau | SL    View image

"I felt like I was always around such great players, so it's weird getting kind of recognition because being on that team, you know, that's who they recognized and so it always drove me, like I had to reach their level, I had to catch up to them," said Maka, who made All-ILH Second Team all-star as a junior and honorable mention as a senior.

It wasn't just on the football field that Maka excelled, however. He also earned a 3.8 grade-point average and posted SAT and ACT test scores that made him a qualifier out of high school. But no scholarship offers came.

That was, until he took part in the 2017 Life Champion Senior Bowl a few weeks after the completion of the prep season. It was there that Maka finally got the looks that he needed and made the connections necessary to get his shot in junior college ball at Independence Community College in Kansas.

"I think it one was one of the bigger events that happened because that was the only bowl game I was invited to," Maka recalled. "At first I didn't want to go because I didn't really think much of it, but when I did go I had a great time of course, and that's really when I started getting JuCo recognition. … I'd say if it wasn't for that Life Champion Bowl I wouldn't have been recognized or even seen on the college football level."

Once Maka landed in Independence, Kansas — population: 8,600 — he rolled up his sleeves and got back to work.

"Coming out of high school with no offers and then going to JuCo, that was a big deal," Maka said. "And it didn't deter my spirits. I was already used to being the underdog and so doing through JuCo and with high school, it just helped me. It was humbling, you know? I had to work for it and stuff, so even getting here — when I got here nothing was guaranteed — so all of those experiences, it really made me realize that you had to work for everything that you want to get."

Independence Community College was featured on the Netflix documentary Last Chance U for two seasons, including in 2018 when Maka was a first-year player for the Pirates.

After one season in Kansas, Maka drew the attention of a number of Division-I schools, including a handful from Conference USA. Maka said a key factor in his decision to sign with UTSA was the big city environment of San Antonio that his parents enjoyed during his official visit.

It didn't take Maka long to make an impact with the Roadrunners, albeit at a new position. He started all 12 games at center in 2019 and was a key part of an offensive line that helped UTSA generate 4,139 yards of total offense, including 1,950 rushing yards and a Freshman All-America season by running back Sincere McCormick, who set a new single-season all-purpose yardage mark last year. Maka was also named a recipient of the C-USA Commissioner's Academic Medal and an Honor Roll member.

But after the Roadrunners finished with a 4-8 overall record and 3-5 mark in C-USA last year — their second straight losing record and third in four years — coach Frank Wilson was let go the day after the final game of the season. And just a handful of days later, the school announced the hiring of Jeff Traylor, who had spent the past three seasons as running backs coach at SMU (2017) and Arkansas (2018-'19), but mostly cut his teeth as a highly-successful high school coach in Texas.

All of that translated to Maka having to prove himself all over the again to a brand new coaching staff. And he was just fine with that.

"I guess I've seen movies where a new coaching staff comes in and everything is changed, but I'm glad that I thought that way because I felt like I was getting comfortable. I felt like at my position I was getting too comfortable and with the new recruits that (Traylor) brought in, it really pushed me to better myself as a center and as a player overall, so competition just made our team better in the end."

That has become evident not just by the team's increased win total this fall, but perhaps moreso by the individual effort and sacrifice from the players, Maka noted.

"Honestly, a big part is coaching and with that bringing in his own culture of what he expects from us, (but) we just bought-in really, that's the biggest thing," Maka said. "I think the whole team really bought-in. Last year it wasn't a whole-team effort, it was more like individuals bought-in here and there, but this year everybody bought-in and I guess it's like we believed we could really make something of this year, especially with how little preparation we had."

Some may see the coaching transition and the coronavirus pandemic as too much to overcome in Traylor's first season as a collegiate head coach. However, Maka said health and safety has always superseded competitive advantage for the Roadrunners.

"Coach is always trying to make sure that we're all out playing and that we're safe when we do it, so everything's been the same, it's just more cautious, I guess. Everybody can tell that he really does care about our health and well-being, so buying-in to a coach like that, it wasn't too hard," Maka added.

The culture that Traylor has sought to instill in the program is a blue-collar one, to be sure. The team has embraced the mantra of #201TriangleOfToughness, which is an ode to the area code of San Antonio.

"That's something that we pride ourselves on at UTSA: being able to run the ball and stop the run and in general we want to just be tough so that's a big emphasis and it also just opens up a lot more stuff in the pass game and in general," Maka explained.

The statistics reflect that mantra. The Roadrunners, who play their home games in the Alamo Dome, rank second in C-USA in rushing offense (214.7 yards per game) and sixth in rushing defense (152.7 ypg). While the UTSA offense is relatively balanced — averaging just shy of 200 yards through the air per contest — its bread and butter remains the run game.

That's why Maka took great pride in McCormick being named C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Tuesday — despite the fact that Maka, along with two other UTSA offensive linemen — were relegated to the Second Team.

"Well, we just hold ourselves to a higher expectation. Of course, we wanted to be on the first team, but it's just like adding fuel to our fire," Maka responded. "We got next year with everybody coming back. We're playing on making that First Team and coming into this season none of us were picked from the entire team to be on the first team or second team, so just to prove that we were able to prove some of them wrong it was a big deal and we just hope to keep doing it."

Maka started all 10 games in which he was available this season, nine of them at center, and is credited with 27 knock-down blocks. He has allowed just one sack in 399 pass-blocking snaps and graded out at 94 percent. Earlier this season, Maka was named to the watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is given annually to the player considered to be the nation's top center.

Maka, who grew up in Ewa Beach and attended Saint Francis prior to transferring to Punahou as a junior, has had many coaches over the years — he even won the OIA's shot put and discus titles when he briefly went to Farrington during the spring of 2017 — but he is especially grateful for his two seasons learning from then-Buffanblu offensive line coach Reggie Torres.

"When I was introduced to coach Reggie I was ready to be molded and everything and he's a big influence on the lineman I am today," Maka proclaimed. "Till this day I still do everything he taught me at Punahou, it's crazy."

He added that he takes great pride in representing the 50th state to the best of his abilities, both on and off the field.

"Well, especially out here there's no one else from Hawaii, so when they see me that's like their stereotype of what they think everybody else is, so I try to make a good name for people out in Hawaii and stuff that we're just hard-working kids," said Maka, who majoring in cyber security with a planned graduation date of spring 2022.

Maka and the Roadrunners have been patiently awaiting Saturday's First Responder Bowl since they played their last game, a 49-17 win over North Texas two days after Thanksgiving.

"Honestly, we're pretty energized. We're pretty rested up after four weeks. We've been trying to recover while still hitting pads, but for the most part everybody is excited, especially since it's around Christmas time so after the bowl game we'll be going back home and everything," he said.

But they've also had to be flexible in the past week.

UTSA was originally scheduled to play SMU in the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl last Saturday, but that game was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Mustangs' program. Almost as soon as that game was called off, it was announced that UTSA would play an opponent-to-be-determined in the First Responder Bowl instead. Five days after that, it was announced that Louisiana would be that opponent.

"We've just been trying to emphasize that we keep our physicality, but not having an opponent, like o-line wise, we've been preparing for four-down fronts, three-down fronts, all types of stuff," said Maka, who is well-aware of what is at stake for the Roadrunners Saturday.

UTSA's only other bowl appearance in program history — the 2016 New Mexico Bowl — resulted in a 23-20 loss to the University of New Mexico.

"Oh, it's a big deal, especially with the momentum we're trying to ride it out and take it into the offseason." He went on, "Hopefully we can knock someone off the rankings because they're a ranked team. It'll be our first bowl win and I think maybe our first win against a ranked opponent, so I'm excited for that."

Kickoff between the Roadrunners and Ragin' Cajuns from Gerald J. Ford Stadium on the SMU campus in Dallas is set for 10:30 a.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on KITV.

Note: UTSA announced Wednesday that Traylor received a positive COVID result during a routine test and will not be cleared to travel with the team to the game Saturday. Associate head coach and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. will be acting coach in his place. Traylor is in isolation and not currently experiencing any symptoms, the school said.

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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