Hawaii linebacker recruit Kahanu Kia passes on his dream school for Notre Dame

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Picking Notre Dame required Kahanu Kia to turn down his childhood dream school.

A University of Utah legacy, Kia grew up hoping to play for the Utes but ultimately chose the Irish. The three-star linebacker recruit in the 2021 class announced his verbal commitment to Notre Dame on Thursday.

Kia told the Irish coaching staff about his decision on Tuesday before doing an interview with the Tribune later that night.

“It wasn’t a comfortable decision, but I knew that I would fit in (at Notre Dame) and I could grow to be the best person that I can be on and off the field,” Kia said. “There were other schools that were really hard to say no just because I felt like I would be really comfortable there. But going to Notre Dame and accepting that challenge was something I wanted to do and further myself academically and athletically.”

On the Irish, Kia projects as an inside linebacker. 247Sports pegs Kia as its No. 61 outside linebacker and No. 924 overall player in the 2021 class. He joins a 22-player recruiting class that ranks No. 9 and No. 10 nationally on 247Sports and Rivals, respectively. 

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Kia comes from Punahou School in Honolulu. His parents — mother Emmalei and father Nate — both attended Utah. Nate played for the Utes as a defensive lineman from 1993-96. They were the first Division I program to offer a scholarship to Kahanu in September 2019.

Notre Dame did not join the mix until approximately a year later, offering Kia on Sept. 1. UCLA and Stanford were among others schools Kia considered. The Irish are unlike the rest, Kia said.

“It was both the academics and athletics. It’s the best combination of both,” Kia said. “But I think too, they don’t offer a lot of people. They have really unique players in that both on and off the field is really important to them. Not to say anything bad about other players. I just think that it’s a different type of student-athlete at Notre Dame that I want to be surrounded by.”

After passing at the position in the 2020 recruiting class, Notre Dame initially looked to add just one linebacker this cycle. The Irish heavily pursued only a couple linebackers and appeared to be done at the position after receiving a commitment from Jonesborough (Tenn.) David Crockett’s Prince Kollie in August.

Unforeseen roster attrition hit the Irish, opening up a few more spots this class. That includes Jordan Genmark Heath committing to a transfer in September before landing at UCLA. Then Notre Dame recruited Kia.

Notre Dame’s coaching staff told Kia he was the only linebacker they would pursue for the rest of the cycle, he said. Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea, recruiting/special teams coordinator Brian Polian and defensive analyst Nick Lezynski headed his recruitment.

“They were really honest,” Kia said. “They weren’t trying to sell me any fluff or anything like that. They really made it seem like they wanted me and felt like I would be a really good piece to this class. That is what really stuck out to me.”

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kia plans to serve a two-year mission while at Notre Dame. Other football programs wanted Kia to leave for his mission after graduating high school. Not the Irish. He will play his final high school season next semester before graduating and joining the Irish in June.

Then Kia will be a member of Notre Dame’s football program for one year before departing for his mission. He will return for his second season in 2024.

“They want me to come here first just so I can put my feet in the water, academically and athletically, just so I know what I’m coming into,” Kia said. “For that first year, I’m not going to be thinking about the mission. I just want to come there and be the best that I can be and try to get on the field as much as possible.

“I don’t want it to be, ‘I’m just going to leave on my mission and this year is kind of a waste.’ I want it to be a meaningful year where I can prove my worth before I go on my mission.”

The Hawaii and Punahou pipeline at Notre Dame continues through Kia. Punahou produced former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o, who led Notre Dame to a national championship appearance as a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2012. Two of Te’o’s Hawaiian teammates, wide receiver Robby Toma and the late defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, secured significant roles on the Irish.

Safety Alohi Gilman and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, two multi-year starters, highlight Notre Dame’s more recent Hawaii success. Sophomore linebacker Marist Liufau and freshman defensive end Jordan Botelho comprise the current Irish players from Hawaii. Liufau has received plenty of high-leverage snaps this season. Botelho has impressed as a special teams player.

Liufau has the strongest connection with Kia. They were teammates at Punahou.

“That definitely played a big part in my recruitment,” Kia said. “He is happy there. He is loving his experience there. The thing that he told me and what I could definitely see is the trust that he has in the coaches. Coach Lea, coach Nick, coach Polian, all of those guys, he loves and trusts them. The players too, how much he loves being around the players. He talks about the culture of the team, and I can definitely see it.”

That culture became apparent to Kia when he visited Notre Dame for the first time during the weekend of the Clemson game. Kia could not tour the facilities or have face-to-face contact with the coaching staff under the dead period rules. The NCAA’s dead-period mandate lasts through April 15. But he could take a do-it-yourself trip.

From touring the campus to seeing Notre Dame Stadium from the outside, Kia knew this was the place he wanted to be. Even if his childhood was spent thinking about somewhere else.

“It was kind of hard coming to grips with, ‘Dang, I’m not going to the place I always thought I was going to go to: my childhood dream school.’ But at the end of the day, it’s a business,” Kia said. “Notre Dame is going to be my home for the future.”

“I think football-wise, they are both top tier. Obviously Notre Dame is No. 2 in the nation, and that’s awesome. The path they are going on is trending upward.

“But what it was, was the academics, the power of the degree at the school and what I can get from it, and the players themselves and the connections I felt with them.”

Honolulu Punahou School’s Kahanu Kia, a three-star linebacker in the 2021 recruiting class, committed to Notre Dame on Thursday.