Usually, announcers give up on Hank Tuipulotu’s last name around the third try. His is a name they ought to learn, though.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Nation Ford junior unofficially leads the state in receptions through five games (59) and has already caught 12 touchdown passes. But even as fans and defensive coordinators come to know this stoutly built pass-catcher of Tongan descent, few can suss out his poly-voweled surname.
“It’s a pretty cool name to have because not many people can pronounce it,” said Tuipulotu after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s fun to hear people say it.”
Tuipulotu (pronounced Tooey-pooh-low-too) comes from good football stock. His dad, Peter, played one season for the San Diego Chargers (1992) and two seasons for the now defunct Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League. Peter Tuipulotu, a native of Tonga, was a starting running back at Brigham Young from 1988 to 1991. Peter’s brother, Tom, also played at BYU from 1983 to 1987, winning a national championship in 1984.
It’s easy to see their hereditary influence in Hank Tuipulotu’s football abilities, as well as Peter’s home-cooked coaching.
“He’s been probably my best coach throughout my life,” said Hank. “Ever since I started football, he’s been one-on-one with me the entire time. I’ll come home from the games and I’ll get constructive feedback constantly.”
Tuipulotu expects the best from himself, which sometimes plays out on the field after a rare drop in practice.
“He’s extremely hard on himself, sometimes to a detriment,” said Nation Ford coach Michael Allen. “But he’s gotten better with that and understands that he’s got to get ready for the next play.”
That kind of mindset can only help the Nation Ford football program, though. Even as the Falcons’ inexperienced defense has struggled to stop opponents (allowing 45.4 points per game), their offense has been equally unstoppable thanks in large part to the junior receiver. His extrasensory perceptive connection with quarterback Cole Martin has helped the pair post video game offensive numbers and break school records within the first five contests.
Martin and Tuipulotu have played together since ninth grade, “and they really understand the system,” said Allen. “You can’t know exactly what somebody’s thinking, but they’re pretty close together on that and they know how to make a play when a play is needed.”
Tuipulotu laid down a marker in the season opener against Forestview, catching a school-record 18 passes for 167 yards and three touchdowns. He followed with a at least nine catches and two TD grabs in every game since. Peter Tuipulotu said he knew that his son had pass-catching ability at a young age when he was making one-handed snags, and Hank has confirmed that so far this fall with just one drop in the 60 balls Martin has thrown his direction.
There may have been some question to whether Martin and Tuipulotu could fill the cleats of graduated pitch-and-catch tandem Dalton Helms and Riley Hilton. Statistically, the juniors are well on pace to blow by Helms and Hilton’s production.
“It’s really just worked out,” said Martin. “(Hank’s) a big third down guy for those key receptions when we need it, and he just seems to be in big places when you need him.”
The combination of Tuipulotu finding open pockets in the defense, and Martin being able to throw him open has been ruthlessly effective for Nation Ford. One hundred twenty-seven of Martin’s 149 completions this season have come within 20 yards, prime operating turf for Tuipulotu and fellow junior Jordan Helms, who has 39 catches.
“Cole does a great job of putting me where I need to be,” said Tuipulotu.
Tuipulotu’s success is helping others, forcing defenses to stay honest. See Helms’ 16 catches last week against Ridge View, or Josh Shade’s two touchdown catches in the same game as evidence for what Tuipulotu’s presence can do for the Falcon offense.
“We’ll be able to hit them with something else,” he said. “I have no worries about that.”
BYU’s tradition of recruiting Polynesian players started in 1951 with the first, a Hawaiian named Harry Bray. Tuipulotu, who has a 4.0-plus grade point average, would like to become the third with his surname to play for the Cougars. He’s initiated the recruiting process by filling out questionnaires left at Nation Ford by a number of schools, including Clemson and North Carolina. But as a devotee of the Mormon faith, Tuipulotu said he really has eyes for his dad’s alma mater.
“We’re hoping if he continues to play well that will hopefully open up some more doors for him,” said Peter, adding that he hoped his son could get a shot with a program that utilized tight ends and H-backs, Stanford for example. But, he added, “If he made it to BYU, that’d be wonderful.”
Tuipulotu certainly has some college football qualities already. His hands are spongy and he runs a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, pretty good for a guy his size. Tuipulotu also has the trickle-down toughness of his Tongan heritage, derived from the tiny specks of island in the southern Pacific Ocean known for producing warrior males.
“My dad, he’ll remind me that I need to be the biggest person out there, even if I’m not,” said Tuipulotu.
The family goes back to Tonga about every two years, reenforcing the warrior blood of Hank and his two brothers.
“Hank, he plays hard, but we tried to raise him up to be a good young man and sometimes he’s a little too nice,” said Peter with a laugh.
Only a junior, Tuipulotu is far from the finished product. But he’s already showing that he could make the cut at the next level with his sticky hands, good speed and robotic production in the Falcons’ passing game. Asked if he thought his junior standout is a future Division I football player, Allen didn’t hesitate
“Oh yeah, yep.” His eyes narrowed. “Without a doubt.”