McGrane: Lakalaka Looms Large in Aztec LB Corps
March 15, 2017
2016-17 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Lakalaka Looms Large in Aztec LB Corps
His face smeared with eye-black and an enormous lei draped around his neck following last season's win over Hawai'i, San Diego State linebacker Ronley Lakalaka had just been asked if he'd had a chance to exchange pleasantries with his brother, Warriors running back Steven Lakalaka, during the course of the contest.
Younger brother wasn't biting.
"No, I didn't say much."
Well, perhaps not much suitable for this space.
In a family of football-fueled sons (Steven and Ronley's younger brother, Seyddrick, will join the Aztecs this fall), the School of Hard Knocks throws its doors open early, its playground no place for those inclined to run crying to mama.
Ultimately, Steven went off to Hawai'i as the state's No. 3-ranked running back, having been selected as the Gatorade Hawai'i Player of the Year as a senior at Punaho High in Honolulu. Ronley, however, despite being a two-time all-state selection at Punaho, would never realize the vision of joining his brother at Hawai'i. The Warriors declared Ronley too short.
"He was so psyched up out there, yelling and screaming and getting everybody pumped up," Munson said from Sacramento, where he was preparing for SDSU's pro day on March 23rd. "And he just went off in that game. Every play, he would call out his brother, to the point where the ref finally came to me and said, 'Hey, you've got to get 39 (Lakalaka's jersey number) to cool it on the trash talk. I told the ref, 'No, no, you don't understand. No. 4 (Hawaii running back Steven Lakalaka) is his brother.' The ref just kind of looked at me and said, 'Oh, okay. Well, never mind then."
There are two sides to Ronley Lakalaka. There's the subdued and serene Ronley, the ever-present smile and cordial nature reflective of the very essence of his native Honolulu.
Then there's the football field side, the fierce and highly flammable side, where the seemingly unflappable Lakalaka morphs into a riotous mix of mayhem and tumult, the calm replaced by an unsatiated urge to wreck anything running.
"When the whistle blows for the game to start, he becomes a vocal son of a gun," said Danny Gonzales, who was recently handed the defensive coordinator duties by head coach Rocky Long after serving as the Aztecs' safeties coach the past six years. "Before practice, he's so quiet you hardly ever hear him say a word. He can be very stern and aggressive on the (practice) field, too, but on game day he's a different type of monster."
With some monster shoes to fill.
Lakalaka, who as a true freshman appeared in 11 games, made 13 starts as a sophomore for the nation's 11th-best defense last season, finishing second on the team with 73 total tackles.
But now he must fill a void as pivotal as it is daunting. In assuming Munson's spot in SDSU's elaborate 3-3-5 defense, he is replacing a two-time all-Mountain West linebacker, a player who led the Aztecs in total tackles each of the last two seasons (a combined 214) while recording 14 sacks.
"Whenever I needed help, (Munson) was always there for me," Lakalaka said. "Whether it was technique, plays, how to take on blocks, he showed me the way and paved the way. He also showed me how to have fun everyday, but to take practice seriously, because that's where it's going to show up, in the games.
"I want to be able to follow what he did every step of the way. Look at him now. He's going to go to the NFL as a three-time all-Mountain West linebacker. It was the same way with (former Aztec linebacker) Jake Fely. Both of them really helped me out in the weight room and in the film room. He (Munson) told me to keep working hard in practice and that I was going to be better than he was, but I don't believe that."
There was a time, of course, when both players wondered if anyone believed in them. While Lakalaka was spurned by Hawai'i, a price that could prove costly for the Warriors over the next two seasons, Munson ended up at SDSU after earning all-state honors at Francis Howell High in St. Charles, Mo. Nonetheless, the only in-state school to offer Munson a scholarship was Missouri State, an FCS school that has had three winning seasons since 2000. He was also offered by Murray State, Tennessee-Martin and Southern Illinois. And while Power 5 schools Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Arizona State and Cal showed interest, it was clear that while Munson's all-state credentials were flashy, his speed was not.
"It can do one of two things: It can either knock you down or it can motivate you," said Munson, one of just six SDSU players with more than 300 career tackles. "I think it definitely motivated Ronley. He came in with a chip on his shoulder and that's the way he plays, like he always has something to prove. And that's what it does to you. I'm sure he could play for a lot of bigger schools that overlooked him, but I'm glad San Diego State has him and I'm happy that I had him playing alongside me last year."
Particularly in the season's final weeks, a period in which Lakalaka truly began to emerge as a player to be accounted for in SDSU's defense. In the Aztecs' next-to-last game of the regular season, Lakalaka recorded a career-high 12 tackles at Wyoming, eight of them solo. It was his first career game with double-digit tackles and marked the second time in 2016 that he would lead SDSU in total stops, heady stuff for a sophomore holding a starting job as part of one of the country's top defenses.
Said Lakalaka: "It was just about going out there and staying relaxed and not panicking, taking what I learned from the coaches and doing it out on the field."
It's an effort he's fine-tuning during spring drills and will need to reprise this fall, one that will find him in a key leadership role. And one that will undoubtedly find him in "monster" mode when the Aztecs visit Hawai'i three days in advance of Halloween.
"Ronley is a great player," Munson said. "He honestly has some of the best pure football instincts I've ever seen. He just seems to know where the ball is going all the time and he's able to read plays very fast. That was something I noticed about him right after he came (to SDSU), and that's something you can't teach. You can't teach instincts.
"He's just a playmaker. He's not the biggest linebacker or the fastest linebacker you'll see, but he'll make just as many plays as anybody else, if not more. When you look at the fact that he played as a freshman, that's very unusual, just because of the complexity of the defense that Coach Long runs. In all honesty, he probably taught me just about as much or more as I taught him. He's got a great future ahead at San Diego State."