SDSU LB Vai Kaho looking forward to a big senior season

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Vai Kaho joins in on a tackle during the Spring Game. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

As a third-generation Polynesian-American, Kahomovailahi Kaho was born and raised in Reno, Nevada. His grandparents emigrated from Tonga to the United States before settling in “The Biggest Little City in the World.”

His full name comes from Vai Lahi, one of the largest lakes on the Tongan island of Niuafo’ou. To Aztec Nation, he goes by a shorter first name, Vai, meaning “water” in Tongan.  

The linebacker’s first three years on the Mesa have been filled with adversity. His freshman year of college coincided with a global pandemic, prompting difficult circumstances around full football participation. 

“It was definitely something we’ve never experienced before, so I had to adjust to that, dealing with the social distancing and the different practice times and things like that,” Kaho said during an upcoming episode of The SDSU Football Podcast. “I would say I definitely didn’t get the whole college experience right away. Things were locked down. San Diego was really a ghost town for a little and just having to deal with that and adjusting to having no fans at the games. It was a difficult time, but dealing with that adversity only made us better.”

In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Kaho (6’1, 230) appeared in seven of the Aztecs’ eight games, playing primarily on special teams and relishing the opportunity to contribute in his true freshman season. 

“(Special teams is) another phase of the game that we emphasize … I’m trying to do anything for the team that includes being a special teams guy,” Kaho said.

Vai Kaho pursues RB Martin Blake during the Spring Game. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

In the second game of the season at Utah State, Kaho played five snaps on defense and collected one quarterback pressure. 

After a strong spring camp in 2021, Kaho headed into his sophomore season, showing promise of contributing on the defensive side of the ball. But behind a very talented linebacking corps, he played only 15 snaps on defense through the first six games. 

With the next game against Air Force, the best rush offense in the country, the Aztecs coaching staff decided to switch to a 3-4-4 defense, starting Kaho in place of safety Cedarious Barfield. 

While Kaho only tallied two tackles in the game, his physical presence across 44 snaps helped the rush defense hold the Falcons 144 yards under their season average in a 20-14 Aztec victory

Postgame linebacker Michael Shawcroft lauded Kaho’s impact in the performance. “You see his energy and passion for the game, and I love it!” exclaimed Shawcroft. “I love playing with him. I love being around someone like that, who is always going to give 100% every single snap, no matter what. I think he did great tonight and played in a big role that we needed.”

Kaho attributes his physicality to his Polynesian roots.  

“I think football is just a great outlet to showcase what most Polynesians have in them, which is being physical, but also being playmakers and game changers,” Kaho said. “I think being physical just comes from where I was growing up (and) where I was raised. All we had was football and sports, so as I got older, I realized that I just had a dog mentality in me, so I think it’s definitely grown.”

It is no surprise that when asked to name his favorite professional athlete outside the football field, boxers Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather were mentioned. Outside of football, there are not many sports more violent and physical than boxing. 

“Just growing up, I was always interested in the boxing world, so it took me back to research and things like that,” explained Kaho. “I watched a lot of interviews about Muhammad Ali and kind of how he carried himself. He had that really cool swagger about him.” 

Despite the strong performance against Air Force, Kaho did not play a single snap on defense the rest of the 2021 season as the team returned to its standard 3-3-5 defense when not facing a triple-option rushing attack. 

Entering the 2022 season, Kaho still found himself behind four experienced linebackers on the depth chart and fighting with a few others to become the fifth guy in the rotation. 

Vai Kaho blitzes during the Spring Game. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

When Shawcroft, the starting linebacker at WILL, was injured against Boise State in week 5, it appeared Kaho would get another chance to start. Instead, redshirt freshman Zyrus Fiaseu was given the nod by the coaching staff against Hawaii. Fiaseu’s strong performance earned him a starting position for the remainder of the season and kept Kaho down the depth chart.   

Once again, it was a game against Air Force on the final day of the regular season, where Kaho saw extended playing time. Despite not starting, he played 33 snaps and collected six tackles (one tackle for loss). Overall, Kaho played 114 snaps in 2022, finishing with ten tackles. 

In the current transfer portal-fueled landscape of college football, players in Kaho’s situation may have become disillusioned by their spot on the depth chart and looked elsewhere for their final two years of eligibility. And it would be hard to blame them. 

Instead, Kaho doubled down, recalling the reasons why he came to SDSU in the first place – winning – and how he wants to add to that legacy.  

“The standard (at SDSU) obviously is winning 22, so whatever it takes for the coaches to do, for me to do, I’m willing to do it,” he said. 

Entering his senior season, Kaho came out of spring camp listed as the backup to Fiaseu at MIKE linebacker. While Kaho admits he prefers playing off the ball and in coverage, he trusts the coaching staff and will do whatever it takes to win.

With the losses of three key linebackers from last season, Kaho understands he will be called upon to step up in areas he may not have been most comfortable before. He is excited to take on that challenge.

“I don’t want to walk around here talking about everything that I’m going to do,” he added. “I think as I keep my head down and keep working, it establishes itself that I’m here not only to make a name for myself but to win and be the best teammate that I can be. I think what I bring to the team will be known. I bring a lot of energy and passion to the game, but not only that, knowing that I could be a leader out there that guys (can) count on.” 

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The competition in the linebacking room is fierce, led by defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kurt Mattix, who preaches a healthy competition where every player’s goal is for the team to win. Kaho applauds Fiaseu’s consistency, natural instincts, and knack for the ball and looks forward to continuing playing with him. 

The competition and the standard of play for the linebackers can be traced back to Shawcroft, Lakalaka, Caden McDonald, Andrew Aleki, and Segun Olubi, who paved the way for the current group over the past two years.  

“I was blessed and fortunate enough to be behind those guys and see how they work,” Kaho remarked. “You see how they go about their day and how they have pride about being here, being an Aztec. So you kind of just follow right in. I took that upon my room this year, and I think you guys will be excited to see what the linebacker room has to bring this year. We pride ourselves on being the toughest and most physical, and obviously, a lot of outside people see that. But from the inside, what I see is a lot of guys who are truly hungry. They were overlooked coming out of high school, and that’s kind of the culture here. We are slept on.”

At Bishop Manogue High School, Kaho excelled in multi-dimensional ways. He was an All-League player at linebacker, totaling 134 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, six sacks, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions in his final two years, according to MaxPreps. 

Vai Kaho during running drills at spring practice. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

In addition, Kaho played wherever the offense needed him to line up, whether it was running back, wide receiver, tight end, or quarterback at times. 

To further echo Kaho’s philosophy to do whatever the team needs, he even stepped in to punt when their punter missed games due to an injury. 

“They didn’t really have anybody (else), so I had to step up in there,” he said. “I got a few punts in and had to hang the punting cleats up.” 

He is quick to dismiss any notion that he was a great punter and makes it clear that Jack Browning, SDSU’s current punter, has nothing to worry about Kaho taking his spot this season. 

What Aztec Nation does not need to worry about is Kaho’s dedication to the Aztecs and the opportunities they have provided for the Polynesian. 

“I’m blessed to be in this position to make it out of Reno and get an education,” he described. “I’ll be graduating next year, so things have fallen into place with this football, and I’m super thankful for it. I respect the game.”

Kaho will complete his Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies in the Spring of 2024, with a focus on Communications and Recreational Tourism Management. In many ways, his degree, along with his brother’s, will be one of the firsts in the family and an ode to their grandparents for making the sacrifices they did decades ago. 

“I really can’t pay them back (enough) for coming to America and giving me a better opportunity out here,” Kaho said. “So I think one of the ways I can is just showing them that I appreciate them and that I’m out here working hard to get a degree and play at the next level. I think it’s just a testament to them and me showing my appreciation to them by graduating. 

“It’ll be big for me too.”

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