Lineman pays dues to overcome injury

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of features on players from the various units on the UNLV football team. Today is a look at the offensive and defensive lines.

ELY -- The large red cast that makes his broken right hand look like a club more than gives away UNLV junior Thor Pili's injury, but it's more than that.

Watch him line up in a three-point stance while playing left defensive end. Instead of placing all his weight on his right hand, as is the custom, Pili puts both hands on the field while leaning a little more on his left.

It's an awkward stance, and it has slowed Pili's burst off the line.

One play Monday morning, though, was different. Pili blasted past right tackle Johan Asiata and toward quarterback Travis Dixon. Because Dixon was not allowed to be hit, Pili ran behind him.

That explosiveness showed why UNLV was excited to sign Pili last December.

"He's improved his quickness tremendously," said defensive line coach Kurt Barber, also a co-defensive coordinator. "He's improved toughness-wise. I think his best football's ahead of him. I expect a lot of big plays out of him."

First, Pili (6 feet 3, 265 pounds) needs to get healthy. He is expected to have the cast removed the week of the Aug. 30 opener at Utah State, and then he will wear a protective covering on his hand.

"When you're a defensive lineman, you use your hands for everything," Pili said. "Your hands are your weapons."

Pili broke his hand about two days before training camp when he fell off a bike.

He had ended spring practices as the starter at one end spot, but the injury put him behind in camp. Pili is competing with senior Elton Shackelford.

Redshirt freshman tackle Malo Taumua's strong camp allowed Barber to move Shackelford from the interior and better compensate for Pili's injury.

But Pili isn't letting Shackelford take the position without a fight.

"From Day One when he got hurt, he didn't want to miss anything," Barber said. "His will to learn to continue to get better even with that injury has been impressive."

Pili was a big-time recruit coming out of Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah. SuperPrep named him one of the nation's top 25 defensive linemen, and Oregon Nebraska, Washington State, Brigham Young, Utah, Arizona and Kentucky lined up to recruit him.

He signed with Oregon in 2004 because the recruiting trip impressed him, and he wanted to play in the Pacific-10 Conference.

But Eugene wasn't what Pili expected. He did not play in his two seasons there, the first serving as a redshirt. Oregon also hired Michael Gray in spring 2005 as its defensive line coach, and Pili said Gray's defensive philosophy didn't mesh with his style.

"It looked like I was going to play, but not as much as I wanted to," Pili said.

So Pili headed to Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, for a semester, and made 9 1/2 tackles for loss for the nation's second-ranked team.

He graduated in December, allowing him to sign early. Besides the Rebels, BYU, Utah and Texas-El Paso were interested.

Pili was tempted to stay in state, but his brother, Tolu, already signed with UNLV. Tolu is a freshman offensive lineman who signed in 2006 and enrolled in January.

That helped swing the Rebels in his favor. Pili also was recruited by Barber and Rebels coach Mike Sanford when they were on Utah's staff.

"I kind of had all three things here," Pili said. "The coaching staff, my brother had a scholarship here, and just the players that I met when I came down."