California hasn't produced an abundance of highly recruited defensive tackles in recent years, but in each of the past two seasons -- Ellis McCarthy in the 2012 class and Eddie Vanderdoes this year -- one defensive big man has become a national talent. In the 2013 class, the state could boast another highly recruited defensive tackle in ESPN Watch List prospect Ainuu Taua (Lompoc, Calif./Lompoc).
The 6-foot-0, 279-pound tackle already holds offers from Arizona, Hawaii, UCLA, Utah, Vanderbilt and Washington, and said coaches from Michigan and Tennessee have expressed interest. The talented recruit helped the Braves to a 10-0 record in the regular season while pitching in on both sides of the ball. He registered 37 tackles, five sacks, an interception and a forced fumble defensively. He also rushed for a 5-yard touchdown and caught 4 passes for 55 yards and two more scores.
But while Taua is poised to become one of the state's highest profile recruits in the upcoming recruiting class, that wasn't always a sure thing. In fact, the coaches at Lompoc and the college Taua eventually enrolls in should count themselves lucky that Taua is still playing football. It didn't seem as though that would be the case several years ago.
"I've been playing since I was seven or eight," Taua said. "But I never really liked it until eighth grade. I don't know why. Just growing up, I never liked it as a kid."
But Taua said the sport grew on him as he watched his older brothers -- including former Nevada running back Vai Taua.
"When my brothers played, I started getting into it," Taua said. "I started to think it was pretty fun, and now I love it."
Now Taua is recognized as one of the top juniors in the West region, with colleges already pitching him hard.
"It's been great," he said of the recruiting process. "It feels good knowing that people want me. It's always a good feeling to talk to coaches and to know that you have somewhere to go after high school, as long as you keep up with school."
Though Taua wants to take the recruiting process slowly, he gained some valuable experience with his brother already going through it and playing at the next level. He said his brother's experience at Nevada, dealing with the distance away from home and family, left an impression.
"Knowing that family means the most to me, family is always going to be a big key to football," he said, adding that staying close to home could be key to his selecting a school.
With that in mind, Taua seems to have targeted UCLA as a potential destination. The defensive tackle has been to the school three times already and will have a chance to watch the Bruins take on the USC Trojans later this month.
"I'm really feeling UCLA," Taua said, though he added that he understands how emotions can change through the process.
Right now, Taua and his teammates are more focused on continuing an undefeated streak that began on Nov. 5, 2010. There is a chance Taua could be celebrating his third CIF title in three years at the end of this season.
"We have a tough schedule ahead of us," he said. "We just have to focus week by week and leave it all out there."