Inside Notre Dame's Hawaiian connection and interest in 2021 LB recruit Kahanu Kia

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Kahanu Kia receiving a scholarship offer from Notre Dame on Tuesday may have come as a surprise.

The Irish didn’t particularly need another linebacker in their 2021 recruiting class. They filled enough space at the position after garnering a verbal pledge from Jonesborough (Tenn.) David Crockett’s Prince Kollie last month. At 18 verbal commitments, only a handful of scholarship spots remain.

Was Kia worth an offer? Assessing his football prowess looks to be challenging. He’s isolated from colleges and recruiting analysts at Punahou School in Honolulu. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out his opportunities for more exposure from March onward. No campus visits. No recruiting camps. Kia has yet to visit South Bend, too.

247Sports pegs Kia as its No. 54 outside linebacker and No. 851 overall player in the class. He likely won’t be able to showcase his talents and improve that ranking until next spring. Hawaii postponed its high school football season to January.

All that meant Notre Dame needed to be creative to know for certain if Kia brought value. The Irish coaching staff underwent a virtual evaluation process, and they liked what they saw. They started pursuing him last month.

Part of what makes Kia intriguing is how he brings roster flexibility. He should not be considered a 2021 recruit. After graduating in June, he plans to serve a two-year mission as part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So he’s essentially a 2023 recruit.

At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Kia flashes versatility. Punahou features him off the edge and in coverage. The Irish foresee him playing middle linebacker.

“I think projection-wise, he will fit very well in there (at inside linebacker). He’s growing, too,” said Leonard Lau, Punahou’s interim head football coach. “He’s a downhill type of player and really physical. I think the inside position is going to suit him well at the next level.”

Recent history suggests Notre Dame could benefit from signing Kia. Players from Hawaii under head coach Brian Kelly have often found success and exceeded expectations. Linebacker Manti Te’o, another Punahou product, most notably led the Irish to a national championship appearance as a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2012.

Te’o’s two Hawaiian teammates, wide receiver Robby Toma and the late defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, secured significant roles. Safety Alohi Gilman and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa highlight Notre Dame’s more recent Hawaiian success. Sophomore linebacker Marist Liufau, Kia’s former teammate at Punahou, and freshman defensive end Jordan Botelho continue to impress in practice.

“Their relationship with Hawaii and all the players that have played at Notre Dame,” Kia said, “it’s one of those dream offers that kids out here really want to have. For me and why I love it so much, it’s a national brand. You are probably going to be on the biggest stage in college football. On a personal level, I would get to play with Marist, my old teammate, again.”

Hawaiian connection      

ABOVE: Former Notre Dame football players Manti Te’o (left) and Robby Toma (right) attended the same high school as 2021 linebacker recruit Kahanu Kia, Punahou School in Honolulu.

Robby Toma admired how Brian Polian kept in touch following his dismissal from Notre Dame’s coaching staff in 2009.

Charlie Weis being fired and replaced by Kelly as head football coach left Polian looking for a job. Toma remembers being among players who remained in contact with Polian. That continued communication paid off for Notre Dame’s recruiting/special teams coordinator.

Since Polian returned to their coaching staff in 2017, the Irish have undergone a resurgence with recruiting in Hawaii. Toma has emerged as one of Polian’s most valuable resources in the Aloha State. Toma played for Kia’s alma mater and eventually returned to Punahou as offensive coordinator. He joined fellow football powerhouse Kahuku (Hawaii) High’s coaching staff as an assistant last year.

Sometimes Polian needs more information about a recruit in Hawaii. Or maybe he’s just looking for another opinion. When he calls, Toma answers.

“Coach Polian and I have a good rapport where I trust him and he trusts me,” Toma said. “So if he asks me about a kid, I will be honest whether it’s brutal or, ‘I think this kid is a stud.’”

Their latest discussion revolved around Kia, who Toma coached at Punahou. Toma said that conversation had little to do with Kia receiving interest from Notre Dame. To Toma, he was just a messenger. Kia deserves the credit.

Still, Toma’s opinion mattered. And he knows Kia’s skill set better than almost anyone.

“He’s long and is a lot faster than people might think,” Toma said. “Aggressive, he’s smart. He reminds me a lot of Marist (Liufau) when he was in high school. Just the motor never stops. Whether you are up 50 or down 50, he’s not going to stop. The kid is relentless.”

In seven Polian-less recruiting cycles under Kelly, Notre Dame signed just one Hawaiian: Schwenke in the 2010 class. Polian played a major role in signing Te’o and Toma. He has helped the Irish reestablish their footprint in Hawaii during his second stint on the coaching staff. He recruited Gilman (graduate transfer from Navy), Tagovailoa-Amosa (2017), Liufau (2019) and Botelho (2020).

Hawaii will continue to be a priority. Beyond Kia, the Irish are pursuing Titus Mokiao-Atimalala this cycle. From James Campbell High in Ewa Beach, Mokiao-Atimalala appears to be Notre Dame’s top uncommitted safety target remaining in 2021. Linebacker Tevarua Tafiti, who plays with Kia at Punahou, looks to be one of ND’s top targets in its 2022 class.

Landing verbal commitments from those three begins with Polian. Toma knows why.

“When Polian comes out here, he’s an open book,” Toma said. “He doesn’t sit here and promise kids the world. He’s honest with them. He wants them to do well. And you can appreciate that out here. I think the day and age we live in, everybody wants to be promised the world.

“Polian is honest with kids. He was honest with me. He was honest with Manti. He was honest with anybody I’ve ever talked to in regards to how he recruits kids.

“I think Hawaii is an underrated place where Polian has found a niche.”

Recruiting process

MIDDLE: Punahou school linebacker Kahanu Kia (17) considers himself a lifelong Utah Utes fan but said he will be open-minded in his recruiting process.

Kia described himself as a lifelong Utah Utes football fan.

Mother Emmalei and father Nate both attended the University of Utah, and the latter played as a defensive lineman for the Utes from 1993-96. Utah became the first Division I program to offer Kia a scholarship last September.

This September figures to be an even bigger month for Kia. His options continue to expand. He accrued offers from Notre Dame and Stanford in back-to-back days this week. UCLA, Washington, Colorado, and Hawaii are among other schools in the mix.

Should Utah be pegged as the overwhelming favorite?

“To be honest, I don’t feel any pressure like I have to go (to Utah),” Kia said. “My parents have told that to me, too, that there is no pressure. I’ve definitely kept my mind open. So there’s no, ‘Oh, I’m automatically going to commit there.’”

Academics will be a key factor in Kia’s decision. He garnered offers from Ivy League schools Penn, Dartmouth and Princeton. His two-year mission also will be a major component. Certain schools may want Kia to leave after his freshman season. Kia said Notre Dame is among other schools that prefer that he serves his mission after graduating from high school.

When and where Kia serves his mission remains unclear. The same can be said for his commitment. He's not expected to make a decision soon. Kia may receive more offers and wants to see if recruiting visits become an option. He plans to take more virtual visits in the coming weeks.

“I’m just going to do the most that I can with these virtual visits before I make my decision,” Kia said. “I feel like while we are not able to go and visit, the coaches also aren’t as busy. So we have a better chance of building relationships over the phone.”

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea and defensive analyst Nick Lezynski joined Polian in pursuing Kia. Lea and Polian are expected to hold a virtual visit with the Kia family on Saturday. Kia said he already feels comfortable with Notre Dame’s coaching staff.

The Irish revamping their Hawaiian pipeline helped.

“If I do get a chance to visit, I’m positive their facilities and everything would blow me away,” Kia said. “The last thing I really want to know is just meet the players, meet the staff and everything like that. The vibe around campus. If I can’t go on a visit, that’s the only thing I want to experience.”

Honolulu Punahou School’s Kahanu Kia, a linebacker in the 2021 recruiting class, reported a Notre Dame scholarship offer on Tuesday, Sept. 1.