Josh Kendall

Tough decision, then two-year mission for USC target

Hank Tuipulotu caught 230 passes for more than 3,000 yards in his final two seasons at Nation Ford.
Hank Tuipulotu caught 230 passes for more than 3,000 yards in his final two seasons at Nation Ford. Special to The Herald

With less than two weeks left before National Signing Day, Hank Tuipulotu’s recruitment is heating up, and that’s despite the fact that the Fort Mill native won’t play college football the next two seasons.

Tuipulotu, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound wide receiver/tight end prospect out of Nation Ford High, is a Mormon and will begin his two-year mission trip after he graduates from high school.

“That was tough coming into the recruiting process, and I don’t blame the coaches,” he said. “It’s tough when you can’t have your hands on a kid when he’s going to be gone for two years, so a lot of schools once I told them about the mission, even if they had interest, they dropped it.”

Lots of them, including South Carolina, have picked up that interest again, though. Tuipulotu made an official visit to Columbia last weekend and was impressed.

“Right now, they are my No. 2 option,” Tuipulotu said of the Gamecocks. “The coaching staff is awesome. They look like they have the program headed in the right direction, which is really comforting if I plan on going there.”

Tuipulotu’s first option is BYU, to which he has been verbally committed since July. His father, Peter, and uncle both played for the Cougars. Tuipulotu committed to BYU before coach Bronco Mendenhall left to the school to become coach at Virginia, but the Cougars’ coaching change actually might solidify Tuipolotu’s commitment to BYU.

New Cougars coach Kalani Sitake is an old friend of Peter Tuipulotu (both are of Tongan descent), and new BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer was the Cougars’ quarterback when Peter Tuipulotu played fullback there. In fact, Detmer visited Hank at his home Sunday after he returned from his official visit to South Carolina.

“The way he’s talking about how his offense is going to run, I’m just super excited about,” Tuipulotu said.

Tuipulotu planned to make an official visit to BYU this weekend, but the inclement weather in the upstate forced a postponement until next weekend.

“I’m still committed to BYU, but my options are open,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of schools come back (into the recruiting process). It’s just a matter of how well this visit goes. That’s where my loyalty is, but other options are still available.”

Tuipulotu is a three-star prospect who caught 230 passes for more than 3,000 yards in his final two seasons at Nation Ford.

“He’s extremely humble by nature,” Nation Ford coach Michael Allen said. “He’s not one that likes that recognition. He’d rather his team members be recognized, so it’s been a process for him to be able to handle all of this attention but he handles it with grace. He’s a very grounded young man.”

Allen first noticed Tuipulotu in middle school, and he was a regular contributor as a freshman, breaking out in Nation Ford’s first win over rival Fort Mill.

“We knew he was special from the get-go,” Allen said. “During that game, we just isolated him and they kept putting different people on him. They thought they had a ninth-grader there and they could just man up on him with whoever, and I think he caught 11 passes that night and was a large part of us winning.”

Tuipulotu hopes to add muscle weight and stay in shape despite what will be a hectic schedule during his two-year mission. Most of Tuipulotu’s waking hours will be accounted for six days a week during his mission, but he hopes to get a 30-minute to one-hour workout in each morning before his study time begins.

“It’ll be mostly push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, things like that,” said Tuipuloto, who hasn’t learned where he will be sent. “Toward the end of this recruiting process, schools have been a lot more lenient toward (his mission trip). They realize that it’s a good thing, I’ll be able to grow a lot. I’ll come back two years older than everybody in my class.”

Tuipulotu will sign a letter-of-intent with the Class of 2016, and then join his team of choice with the Class of 2018 as a freshman. BYU’s familiarity with the mission process adds a comfort level for Tuipuloto, as does the fact that the student body is made up almost entirely of fellow members of the LDS church.

“Being a Mormon is not really easy to do,” said Tuipulotu, whose family moved to Fort Mill from Baltimore, Md., when he was young. “They are few and far between (in Fort Mill), but when you meet one you immediately have that camaraderie.”

Nation Ford will host a signing event for all its athletes on the morning of Feb. 3, National Signing Day, and it may take that long for Tuipulotu to announce his decision.

“As of right now, I will probably make my decision on signing day,” he said. “I don’t want to make anybody upset, but I am making this decision for me and my family.”