The long, black locks fall out of the player’s helmet and bounce on the shoulders and back of his red No. 42 jersey.
So, Jay Staggs is back at UNLV?
No, the Rebels didn’t find a way to get more eligibility for Staggs, the highly energetic safety whose UNLV career ended in 2006.
The player is Heivaha Mafi, a junior college transfer the Rebels hope will make the same sort of impact as Staggs, who has signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
“(Mafi’s) got a lot of hair,” coach Mike Sanford said, “and he plays with it on fire.”
Mafi (6 feet 1 inch, 255 pounds) is competing for a starting job at a new position — a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker — against sophomore Daniel Mareko.
It’s a complicated spot that variously includes dropping into a three-point stance on the line, standing alongside the linebackers, lining up as a pass rusher, blitzing and dropping into coverage.
“We haven’t gotten to the part where (Mafi) has done very much playing as a linebacker, but he’s got a lot of ability,” defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell said. “It’s not the easiest position in the world to play, but for us, it’s a very important position.”
The position is so complex, Therrell said, that Mafi would have been forced to play linebacker if he had joined the team in August rather than in time for spring practices.
“He has more to learn than anybody on the field,” Therrell said. “I’m sure there are days he’s felt like we stuck a water hose in his ears and tried to shoot football info in there. It’s just overwhelming. It’s a lot to learn, but the thing is he gets to make a lot of plays for us.”
Mafi figured he would make those plays for Kansas State, where he first committed. Instead of signing a letter of intent in December, however, Mafi was told no scholarship would be offered.
“They were the No. 1 school on me,” Mafi said. “They tried to get me. I went out there and visited. I liked it. I don’t know what happened.”
UNLV, with its focus on signing high school players, seemed an unlikely destination. But Mafi played at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., and Sanford and cornerbacks coach Mike Bradeson knew Laney offensive coordinator John Beam.
Beam, who recommended Mafi, had been instrumental in helping UNLV sign tailback Frank Summers from Laney in last year’s class. Summers, who rushed for 928 yards last season, also told Rebels coaches Mafi was worth pursuing.
“People like (Mafi) who fly around with intensity and love to play the game and are used to a winning tradition, we could use that here at UNLV,” Summers said. “That’s all I want. I just want guys to surround me who are used to winning, who want to win and who will put it all on the table to win.
“I thought (Mafi) would be a great addition to the team. I told the coaches I thought he would be a great player.”
So Mafi became the only junior college player announced on signing day. The Rebels later added defensive back Terrance Lee of Arizona Western in Yuma.
Mafi helped lead Laney to a 10-1 record last season, and Sanford made a point of showing his highlight tape at the signing day news conference. Shown in a darkened room, Mafi was a blur of uniform, helmet and hair charging unblocked toward helpless quarterbacks and running backs.
Such free passes aren’t as likely in Division I, but the Rebels hope to produce a similar highlight tape on Mafi this season. It might even remind UNLV fans of the plays Staggs used to make.
• NOTE — Running backs coach Reggie Davis left to become an assistant at Oregon State.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or (702) 387-2914.