Sopoaga is a defensive stud

Jun 17, 2004 at 12:00 AM

Hawaii's star studded defensive tackle in Isaac Sopoaga was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in round four of the 2004 NFL draft with the eighth pick and 104th overall. General Manager Terry Donahue tried effortlessly to obtain him somewhere in the third round but was determined to land him as the fourth round opened on Day Two of the draft.

Teams that yesterday on the phone were asking for way too much in compensation for moving up according to our general manager, therefore he went with plan B in implementing the acquisition of this highly decorated player. Donahue worked the phones with a renewed vigor that Sunday and struck a deal with the Chicago Bears, who gave up a fourth round pick (No. 104) for 49ers picks in the fourth (112) and fifth (147) rounds.

Let me be one of many that will tell you folks he was worth the sacrifice and will be an anchor on our defensive line for a long time to come. Very smart business move I must say on General Manager Terry Donahue's part with the prodding of some influential old timers in the front office I'm sure.

When you look at the 49ers draft history in obtaining defensive tackles, it is a position along with cornerback that is the most frequently drafted in the first round with four being selected at each position since 1979. Their most recent bust being Florida's Reggie McGrew back in 1999, since then back in 2003 they acquired Miami's Anthony Adams who started but one game last season but contributed in rotation with veteran Travis Kirschke.

What sets Sopoaga apart from the normal football athlete is his origin and that is Samoa where he came from. In Samoa there are no luxurious weight rooms and bar bells to lift, instead Sopoaga grew up working off the land. His daily routines consisted of cutting down trees, hoisting 100-pound logs and carrying rocks as well. And when it came to working out the legs he was always climbing coconut trees.

He was active in two sports back on Samoa that were popular and those were playing Rugby and Volleyball. He didn't get to participate in a football program until his last year in high school.

"Right now football in Samoa is really huge and big," He said. "Samoan people call football the key to being Samoan, not to just play football but also to go on to college as well."

San Francisco 49er superstar Jesse Sapolu drafted back in 1983 is another proud Samoan that has played in the NFL and had enormous success in his 16 years with the team. This is the very guard and center that Isaac Sopoaga idiolized and wanted most to be like in the NFL because of his relationship with his present day father.

"Jesse Sapolu and my dad go way back," Sopoaga said. "He has given me some good advice. Jesse has told me to just go forward and don't look back; think positive about everything that I do. He has also been helping me out with my training and my workouts as far as what to eat and what to do."

Certainly this advice has and will pay off for the San Francisco 49ers as Jesse Sapolu continues to mentor and provide advice for Isaac Sopoaga. Having played 16 years as a superstar for the 49ers and all his Super Bowl experiences has a lot of clout when he mentions Sopoaga as one of the best he's seen.

But being someone special only through affiliation is something Sopoaga doesn't want to happen. He wants to show the 49ers that they were absolutely right in drafting him when and where they did by making his presence known on and off the field. He is but one of many stars that continue to impress this ball club.

Hailing from the University of Hawaii are none other than Jesse Sapolu himself but linebacker Jeff Ulbrich as well and now Isaac Sopoaga as well. Sopoaga is a workout demon in that he is a true believer in refining both his conditioning and his playing technique as much as possible.

He has modernized his training techniques, by spending three months last winter at the highly sophisticated Athletes Performance Institute in Arizona. Although he played in the 320-pound range back in Hawaii, he said one Sunday that he is a leaner, faster 313.

Where Isaac Sopoaga really made an impact was at the NFL Combine where he was invited to workout in front of hundreds of NFL scouts. Right there he made a huge splash with his outstanding performance that left many of them breathless. He is a man that knows nothing but honesty and integrity to the degree that he'll go to any length in order to help his teammates accomplish any kind of goal.

"I want to show everyone that I'm a football player first, and the lifting stuff comes later," said Sopoaga, sporting a wispy billy-goat beard that just enhanced his unique look. "I can prove to everybody that I'm that type of person. I'm the kind of guy that all 32 teams need on a defensive line. When you look at what he had for competition at the NFL combine in highly rated Texas defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs, who pounded out 29 reps, couldn't help but marvel and feel intimidated by the massive Samoan in Sopoaga.

"I couldn't believe it!" Tubbs gushed. "He did 30 without stopping, took one real short breath and then just started going again. I just said, 'Whoa!' What Isaac Sopoaga did was bench press 225-pounds 42 times and "I could have done it eight or nine more times. When I got back to Hawaii I benched it 52 times working out with my friends," Sopoaga said.

"He is raw in a lot of areas, but he is a guy that can come in and play the run right now," Coach Dennis Erickson said. Among the 49ers scouting reports was one of none other than former offensive lineman Jesse Sapolu, yet another Hawaii player, who knew Sopoaga through his father, Taua Sapolu, said Sopoaga is "just tapping into his potential."

Moving up eight slots to acquire Isaac Sopoaga in the fourth round was something in the beginning that had me wondering when we were to acquire a defensive tackle in the draft. It was my belief that this was one of the more critical areas where we needed help. He will be a force to contend with especially on running plays where he will line up in rotation with second-year player Anthony Adams and veteran Pro Bowler Bryant Young whom he learned to adore at the visit he was invited to at the Santa Clara headquarters of the San Francisco 49ers.

Working out on his family's plantation on Samoa where taro, bananas and breadfruit were grown. He spent all of his youth climbing palm trees and lugging logs around the property. His favorite football team take a guess? It was the San Francisco 49ers in large part due to Jesse Sapolu.

Bryant Young suffered a setback this June when at mini-camp he felt as if his "leg was about to break." The pain then subsided, and the veteran defensive tackle is optimistic he'll be fine. He injured his ankle defending against a run by Terry Jackson on a Thursday practice of a three-day passing camp. Young was carted off the field in great pain and scheduled an MRI. Fortunately for all he's doing well and it turned out to be but a sprain.

When you look at Isaac Sopoaga you can only be impressed by his physical mass and genuine courtesy all at the same time. He is a big-play specialist with tremendous quickness for someone his size. He has developed into one of college football's premier defensive players in retrospect. His coaches call him a "true warrior", and they have said he is an excellent run stuffer with improving pass-rushing skills.

He began his collegiate career at the College of the Canyons, sitting out the 2001 season to establish residency. He then became a mainstay on the defensive line the last two years, he collected 128 tackles (70 solos) with four sacks for minu-28 yards, 15 stops for losses of 56 yards, 11 quarterback pressures, a pair of fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and three passé deflections in 25 games with the University of Hawaii Warriors.

Hawaii's Isaac Sopoaga stands 6-2 and weighs 321 pounds was drafted 104th overall fourth round

Where will Sopoaga fit in with the San Francisco 49ers? Undoubtedly he will alternate between perennial starters in Anthony Adams and Bryant Young in a three-man rotation unit. He may also be used as a nose tackle in 3-4 defensive schemes, where Sopoaga can use his power and strength as a run stopper. He becomes San Francisco's heaviest defensive player and one of the strongest men on the team as a whole.

Although his technique may be raw, he still displays tremendous quickness for a man of his stature. He has a natural burst off the snap and uses explosion to power through blocks and shed offensive linemen. The 49ers are banking on him to be an immediate run stiffer in their defense.

Strengths: He is big and well-proportioned powerful player who has excellent lower-body strength and plays with leverage. He is at his best when he's anchored against the run. Plays with a wide base, can take on two blockers and is tough to generate surge against the run game. Shows quick initial burst and is able to penetrate when giving maximum effort and can be a quick, powerful bull rusher when he's fresh.

Weaknesses: Durability is but a minor concern as he has recovered from an MCL injury in 2003 but has had no other injuries. He is a raw prospect that doesn't quite know how to use his hands and gets locked up. His effort can be inconsistent, and he needs to improve upon a variety of moves. He doesn't have the ideal speed or closing burst as a pass rusher, is stiff and lacks great change-of-direction skills. However these are all flaws that can be challenged and overcome at training camp through sound coaching.

Bottom line: He has the potential to develop into a two-down starter as a nose tackle or gap control tackle. At the very least he'll be an excellent wave player who will be a force against the run.

"The thing you like about this guy is he's got real power. He not only has the power, but he has some real quickness. He's got some good athletic ability where he can take a guy inside and out. He's not just a sit-and-hold-there anchor tackle." Said 49ers defensive line coach Dan Quinn.

He is the heir apparent to Bryant Young in my opinion. Where Young is 32-years old he's in the prime of his life. Bryant Young is the last aging veteran from the Super Bowl era that was the 49ers in the early 90's. Offensive lineman Derrick Deese was the other but left via free agency allowing Kwame Harris to step up to the plate and finding a new home in Tampa Bay.

Defensive tackle is an immediate need for the San Francisco 49ers along with the receiving position. Both of which we addressed in this draft and the next to come. We are rebuilding a team decimated from having experienced player's leave because of salary cap constraints but we are still a competitive team when you loom at all the dynamics of this team.

Are we a team headed towards the basement this season in the Western division? I am optimistic that we aren't and think we will surprise many. ESPN has us ranked 31st in the power rankings of the NFL. Only San Diego was rated worse than us. Certainly that puts an underdog label on this team right out of the gate and has made our players train harder then ever before to prove that this consensus is wrong.

I see hope with General Manager Terry Donahue setting a course for brighter fields and blue rich skies ahead. It has been a long time since we've seen championship blood running through this team's veins but I suggest we stay the course and have faith. This will be a season that will highlight our greatest fears and dazzle our senses all at the same time. The future will take the field this season so stay the entire game and watch them develop.

I want to apologize for my long absence in writing as I endured a takeover of my software and computer by viruses and spy-ware. It knocked me off course for quite some time and I'm now just recovering. I want to thank you for your patience and promise you more great articles to come featuring our draft picks and more.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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