Originally created 01/01/02

Lineman's bulk and agility welcome fit at Nebraska



LOS ANGELES -- When he was growing up, Toniu Fonoti was too big for football. Fortunately for Fonoti, there's no such thing as too big at Nebraska.

The 6-foot-4, 360-pound guard has established himself as the latest on the long list of highly acclaimed Cornhusker linemen.

The first team All-American has used his bulk and surprising agility to help the Cornhuskers bulldoze their way to a 15th NCAA rushing title and a berth in the Rose Bowl.

"You put in a lot of summers and a lot of hours, and I was fortunate enough to get it to that level," Fonoti said.

Fonoti and the No. 4 Huskers (11-1) play top-ranked Miami (11-0) on Thursday for at least a share of the national title. Whether he goes pro or returns to the Cornhuskers next season won't be decided until after the Rose Bowl, he said.

"I really haven't had time to think about it," said Fonoti, a finalist for the Outland Trophy this season.

The award for college football's outstanding interior lineman went to Miami's Bryant McKinnie, and Fonoti said McKinnie deserved it. As massive as Fonoti is, he's not big on attention.

Fonoti was born in American Samoa and grew up in Hawaii, where he first got to play organized football when he was 14.

"I tried Pop Warner but I was too big," Fonoti said Monday.

When he finally got on the field, Fonoti knew where he wanted to play.

"I enjoyed the hitting when I first started out as an O-lineman," he said. "I got out there and put on the pads and, when they told us to start our play, I just kind of skipped the play and just went straight to someone and hit him. I was kind of aggressive when I first started."

He's still aggressive. A junior, Fonoti already is Nebraska's all-time leader in pancakes, the blocks that leave defenders flattened. Fonoti has done it 379 times, including 32 against Texas Tech on Oct. 20.

"You wonder how he does it, then you look at the kid and it kind of comes back to you. He's just a big kid," said tackle Dave Volk, who has played next to Fonoti on the left side the past two seasons.

Fonoti and Volk were the only returning starters on the offensive line after All-American center Dominic Raiola left school a year early last spring for the NFL.

John Garrison took over at center, utility lineman Jon Rutherford came back from a knee injury and moved to right guard and sophomore Dan Vili Waldrop became the starter at right tackle.

The result was a slow start that turned into an NCAA-best 314.7-yard rushing average, 1,299-yard rushing yards for I-back Dahrran Diedrick and the Heisman Trophy for quarterback Eric Crouch.

"It's a pleasure playing with him, especially on double-teams and stuff like that. He's kind of like a wrecking ball," Garrison said of Fonoti. "Someone that strong, that agile and that big is just a huge asset."

Fonoti and his future have been popular topics for the past week as Nebraska prepares for Miami, but he said it isn't really a distraction.

"I haven't been getting that much attention. It's mostly Eric - Heisman Trophy winner and all," he said. "That's fine. I think he deserves it."