2020 DT Aidan 'Big Kahuna' Keanaaina commits to Notre Dame

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

On the first day of his sophomore year in high school, Aidan Keanaaina’s English teacher said his name during roll call. As Keanaaina raised his hand, a friend interrupted.

“Sir, that’s not Aidan, that’s 'Big Kahuna,'” his classmate said.

“Everyone just started laughing, and the teacher had to calm everyone down,” Keanaaina said. “Then he (the teacher) got really upset … I was like, ‘Oh great. What a great first impression.’”

Keanaaina aims to forge a better first impression, especially with Notre Dame football fans after verbally committing to the Irish. He announced the news via Twitter on Wednesday, his 17th birthday. Perhaps it will be Keanaaina's nickname — a Hawaiian phrase that to him means “Big Fish” — that will endear him to Irish nation.

As ND’s fifth commit in the 2020 class, Keanaaina joins quarterback Drew Pyne, defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger and tight ends Kevin Bauman and Michael Mayer.

“I know the kind of people that come to Notre Dame, whether that be football players or normal students,” Keanaaina told the Tribune. “To get into Notre Dame, it’s hard enough, so you already know that they are there to succeed in the classroom, get their degree and be successful in life.

“To play football and get your degree there, that’s even bigger. It just shows how hard they are willing to work in the field and classroom, and those are the kind of people I want to surround myself with. That’s going to push me to do better every day in both atmospheres.”

Keanaaina’s father started the  “Big Kahuna” reference a couple years ago after observing his son’s thicker legs. Now at 6-foot-3, 292 pounds,  the Denver Mullen product rates as a three-star recruit on 247Sports, while Rivals offers him a four-star rating.

247Sports ranks Keanaaina as the No. 33 defensive tackle and No. 370 overall player. Rivals slates Keanaaina No. 17 at the position. The sites rank ND’s 2020 class No. 15 and No. 16, respectively.

“He’s a big time player and one of the best defensive tackles in the country,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “He’s got great feet, great hands. This kid is relentless, very aggressive and born to play football. He’s also a really good student, so he’s a typical Notre Dame-type kid.”

A July 26 visit preceded Keanaaina’s Sept. 29 unofficial visit for ND’s home game against Stanford. The Irish staff continued to express interest in Keanaaina, visiting his high school a few times over the past couple months.

Head coach Brian Kelly would have swung by if weather had permitted. Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght, the geographic recruiter of Keanaaina, began the recruitment. Mike Elston, ND’s defensive line coach, took over the reigns long ago and made an impression on Keanaaina.

“I saw him as a family man,” said Keanaaina of Elston. “He had his daughters with him. I saw how he was with his daughters, and I immediately knew that if he was such a great parent like he seemed, then he would be an amazing coach.”

Denver Mullen also produced Emmett Mosley, a former Irish running back and wide receiver from 1993-96. The private, Catholic institution mirrors the culture of Notre Dame, which played a role in attracting Keanaaina to the university. 

That experience also shaped Keanaaina. Some of Keanaaina's classmates do not know he accrued offers from Ohio State, USC, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin and UCLA. Keanaaina intends to take one official visit — to South Bend — before signing with the Irish. 

“My parents taught me to not kiss and tell,” Keanaaina said.

The Irish could envision Keanaaina developing into a nose guard or defensive tackle. He registered 69 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, four sacks, three hurries, three forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery across nine games as a junior.

The upcoming senior season will be referred to by Keanaaina as his “redshirt freshman” year. In 2019, Keanaaina aspires to perform as though it’s a precursor for playing early and often in college.

“His pad level became much, much better,” said Vincent White, Mullen’s head coach. “He’s a strong fella. He’s very gifted that way. He’s got a lot of strength with himself. If he learns how to get leverage and do a better job with leverage, he’s going to be a really good football player.”

As Mullen's lone player of Polynesian descent, Keanaaina led the Mustangs in the Haka dance before games last season. The dynamic routine comes from the Māori culture, and it requires a combination of shouting, rhythmic stomping and coordinated movements.

The tradition inspired teammates to call Keanaaina by his nickname. Maybe soon, Irish fans will do the same.

That's not Aidan. That’s Big Kahuna.

“That would be OK. As long as they don’t do it rudely, I don’t care,” Keanaaina said. “If it’s fun for them, and they find it cool, I won’t be the one to stop them.”

COMMITED 100% TO THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME ➡️ #IRISHBOUNDXX ☘️ #WeAreND#GoIrish THANK YOU @CoachBrianKelly@CoachMikeElston@Coach_Lea@ToddLyght@StaceyKeanaaina@MullenMustang@SixZeroAcademy@adamgorney@TomLoy247@KevinSinclair_@LemmingReport@NDFootball ☘️

— Aidan Ikaika Keanaaina KAY-AW-NAH-EYE-NAH (@AidanAkfootball) February 13, 2019

Denver Mullen's Aidan Keanaaina (No. 76), a 2020 defensive tackle, committed to Notre Dame on Feb. 13, 2019.