Snakes, ukuleles and SpongeBob: Inside NG Aidan Keanaaina's process before coming to ND

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

None of Aidan Keanaaina’s friends can claim they fear snakes until they hold Koa.

The female ball python is a constricting snake who stretches three feet long and can max out to twice that length, Keanaaina said. But she’s also nonvenomous.

“I see her as non-lethal,” said Keanaaina, Notre Dame’s incoming freshman nose guard. “I trained her very well to handle humans, especially with people who are really afraid of snakes. I will let them hold her, because she’s so nice. She’s so easy.”

Holding Koa, along with woodworking, playing the ukulele and watching his favorite TV show, “SpongeBob SquarePants,” are typical, everyday activities for Keanaaina during the coronavirus pandemic. He plans to spend a couple days next week alone at his family’s cabin in the woods, isolated from the world with no WiFi and activities other than hunting and fishing.

Outside of the social interaction void, Keanaaina hardly feels swallowed by the new normal. Normal almost seems foreign to Keanaaina anyways. He approaches life his own way.

“I’ve handled it OK. Of course, it’s hard. But it’s hard on everybody,” Keanaaina said. “We lost our last senior year of high school. That sucks. But a lot of people have lost even more important things. I’ve tried handling it my best.”

Keanaaina also tackles football with an individualized method.

Because he aims to play in year one, Keanaaina referred to his senior campaign at Denver Mullen as his redshirt freshman season. Then the 6-foot-3, 303-pound Keanaaina identified his stamina and diet as the biggest obstacles keeping him from achieving his short-term goal.

So Keanaaina spent this offseason ramping up his conditioning. Keanaaina acquired resistance bands for workouts and a mask that deprives him of oxygen to strengthen his lungs. He often runs short and long distances at a nearby football field. Notre Dame also provided him with regimens to follow.

“I want to come in there and produce or show that I can play. Show them that this quarantine didn’t affect me,” Keanaaina said. “I know that the Colorado altitude is going to help a little bit with the breathing and respiratory aspect.”

After Keanaaina signed to Notre Dame’s 2020 recruiting class last December, he received an informational manual that included nutritional guidance. He said he’s not worried about molding his body a certain way before arriving to South Bend.

But now Keanaaina’s aware of how his body will change in the coming years — and in a way that surprised him.

“I do not like vegetables that much. I never have really. So that part was a big wakeup call,” Keanaaina said. “But another thing that was really cool was seeing how much I have to be eating. They were like, ‘Oh yeah, you could probably be on a 4,000-calorie diet when you’re here.’ And I’m like, ‘What? How can you be on 4,000 calories? I thought it was only 2,000 or 3,000?’”

Limited length and athleticism were the popular critiques of Keanaaina during the recruiting process. Those knocks were the primary reasons why 247Sports provided Keanaaina a three-star rating, ranking him as the No. 56 defensive tackle in the class. Rivals differed, pegging Keanaaina as a four-star defensive tackle and ranking him No. 29 at the position.

Steve Wiltfong, 247Sports’ director of recruiting, understands Keanaaina’s upside and said he might be the most underrated member of Notre Dame’s signing class.

“I think he could plug the middle and be a solid pickup for Notre Dame,” Wiltfong told the Tribune in February. “I see why people had him as a four-star. He has a chance to be a guy on the interior who is very disruptive for (assistant coach) Mike Elston and his defensive line.”

What encourages Wiltfong and others is their belief that Keanaaina demonstrates advanced technique. Mullen features Keanaaina all across its defensive line. He totaled 77 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, four sacks, seven quarterback hurries, eight forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal in 10 games last season.

Keanaaina credits his perceived polished skills to Matt McChesney, a former NFL offensive lineman. Their training at Six Zero Strength + Fitness became less frequent once the pandemic started, but Keanaaina is incorporating drills he learned from McChesney in his workouts.

“I know a lot of other gyms can work you out. They can probably be better than Matt at working you out,” Keanaaina said. “But the technique work and the actual live reps. The best thing is, the reps are filmed and broken down. Every piece of it, from the first step to the very end. He breaks it all down. He will always find a mistake that you made, even if it’s the best rep of your life. He will find something.”

Two NFL centers — Connor McGovern of the New York Jets and the Arizona Cardinals’ Sam Jones — have worked with Keanaaina over the years. So have other NFL offensive linemen and local products who play for Colorado, Stanford and others.

“When I’m allowed to do my reps against him,” said Keanaaina of McGovern, “he always gives me the best advice. We’ll do a rep and then after the rep, he will break down everything he saw, everything that I could do better or what he did to counter. Everything he wants me to do or knew I would do.”

Polishing technique won’t be the emphasis for Keanaaina before he arrives at Notre Dame, whenever that comes. He’s one of nine Notre Dame freshman football players who will have to adjust to online classes after their mid-June arrival date was delayed.

Then Keanaaina will say goodbye to Koa and hope that his specific focus this offseason translates to playing time.

“I was told I’m pretty strong now,” Keanaaina said. “My maxes and my weight that I can push is really strong already. But the cardio is all of it. … I remember (head coach) Brian Kelly saying on a podcast about how that’s going to be the biggest thing for all the players is conditioning.

“So I want to go in there and not be dying.”

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Notre Dame incoming freshman nose guard Aidan Keanaaina is focusing on conditioning while in pandemic quarantine.