Sizeable potential

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Joseph Tuineau was two years out of high school in his native New Zealand, working at a recreation center and playing rugby for a club team, when it dawned on him that his life had become a bit nondescript.

"I was getting stale, then this came out of nowhere," Tuineau recalled.

"This" was an opportunity in the summer of 2003 to come to the United States and play college football, which was presented to Tuineau by Southeast Missouri State coach Tim Billings.

Now, nearly two years later, Tuineau is working as Southeast's starting tight end during spring practice and almost certainly will enter the season that way.

"It was a great opportunity for me to come over to the states, and I'm really glad I took it," Tuineau said.

So is Billings, who believes the sky is the limit for the still somewhat raw but rapidly developing Tuineau, who will be a sophomore in eligibility this season.

Tuineau stands 6 feet, 8 inches and, prior to Tuesday's practice, weighed in at 277 pounds. Billings said Tuineau has been timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds, which is almost wide receiver kind of speed.

"If Joe ends up developing, he could be a first-round [NFL draft] pick," said Billings, whose squad is in its third week of spring workouts, leading up to the April 30 spring intrasquad game. "He's a big guy who can run, and he's having a really good spring."

Tuineau was spotted by Billings when the coach went to Auckland, New Zealand, in 2003 looking for some potential players.

"There are always some really good athletes over there, and I thought we might be able to find a few," Billings said.

Tuineau had not had much exposure to football, other than watching it on television and playing during his rugby club's offseason in what he described as "like a fun league. Just some guys from the rugby club getting together and playing."

Added Tuineau: "When coach Billings came down looking for players, a couple of guys he was looking at didn't have grades. He worked me out with some of the younger high school guys in our club. He had me do some running, jumping, things like that."

Tuineau, who said he weighed 247 pounds at the time, believes he opened Billings' eyes when he ran a 40-yard dash.

"Right after I ran my 40, he offered me some scholarship help," Tuineau said. "It worked out well. I had been to California before visiting some relatives, but had never spent this much time in the states. I like it here."

Tuineau redshirted his first year at Southeast. Last season, backing up All-American Ray Goodson, Tuineau showed some of the potential that originally intrigued Billings as he caught nine passes for 70 yards, with a long reception of 18 yards.

"Joe didn't get to play all that much because we had Ray, but he got some pretty quality playing time and he showed a lot of ability," Billings said. "It's exciting to have him for three more years."

The outgoing, 23-year-old Tuineau knows he is still extremely raw compared to most players who grew up in America with the sport. But he also knows how far he's come.

"I still have a lot of things to learn, but it's about 150 times better than the last two years," he said. "I basically had to learn the whole game, and I know I still have a long way to go."

Tuineau has not only adjusted to football well, he's also been solid in the classroom as the health management major is a Southeast Scholar Athlete.

"He's a good student, and he's really learning the game," Billings said. "It's pretty neat to see."

Tuineau knows he's got some big shoes to fill in replacing Goodson, a two-time All-American who caught 58 passes last season and finished his four-year career with 149 receptions.

"Ray was a great player and I know I'm filling big shoes, but I try not to pay too much attention," Tuineau said. "I just try to do my best, and if works out, it works out."

A big goal for Tuineau this season is to help the Redhawks bounce back from last year's disappointing 3-8 record, and he's also got some personal things in mind.

"Hopefully a bunch of catches and a bunch of yards," he said.

As for Billings' belief that he is a potential pro prospect if he continues to develop and improve, Tuineau won't say that hasn't crossed his mind. But he's also not fixated with the NFL.

"I try to keep that all out of my mind," he said. "I don't like thinking about long-term goals. I just think if I can do all the small things, that will help me a lot more."

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