Mauga creates own path with Bulldogs
Several months ago, Louisville, Hawaii and Nevada appeared in position to snag a Fallon senior to star this fall.
Spots filled up at the Kentucky school where ex-Fallon coach Chris Klenakis is leading the offense. A coaching change at Nevada in November led to the new staff ignoring a three-star defensive end living an hour away. A trip away from the mainland inched T.J. Mauga closer to signing with the Warriors but something was missing.
A couple weeks later, a San Joaquin Valley college that also went through a coaching overhaul contacted Mauga, luring the Fallon product to cross the mountains for a visit. Things just clicked, especially with defensive line coach Tony Tuioti, who also tried to lure his older brother to play for the Cleveland Browns.
“He right away wanted to come see what was going on with T.J. He came in a couple times. He offered him a trip there,” Fallon coach Brooke Hill said of Fresno State. “He was offered at Nevada under (Brian) Polian but we didn’t hear anything under the new staff.”
Instead of attending a Power 5 school or staying closer to home and playing for his brother’s alma mater, Mauga chose Fresno State over the weekend and made it official on Wednesday in front of family and friends at the high school gym.
“Aside from education, one of the other big things was am I able to make a good relationship with the coaches? Am I able to trust them and can they help me throughout all the years?” Mauga said about his criteria for picking a school. “I didn’t really have a list. Those were the two biggest things. Playing time wasn’t much of a big thing for me. If I had a scholarship, hopefully it covers all four years so my parents don’t have to pay for everything.”
First-year head coach Jeff Tedford said Mauga’s body type and athleticism will allow him to shift positions on defense.
“He’s probably going to move inside even though he played outside in high school,” Tedford said. “He’s got the body type to get bigger and move down inside.”
For this Mauga, the youngest in the family, Wednesday’s signing was about making his own path, separate from his brother, Josh, who’s in the NFL. This story is about T.J.’s journey to Division I stardom where he hopes that he will become an elite defender and also star in the NFL, perhaps alongside his brother.
“I definitely wanted to set my own path,” T.J. said. “I didn’t want to be behind the shadows of being his brother. It shocked a lot of people because they thought I would go to Nevada because of my brother.”
There’s no hard feelings between the brothers as each encourages the other along the way.
T.J. grew up watching Josh stand above the rest when Fallon was in the 4A and during his tenure with the Wolf Pack. He and his family were in the Bay Area anytime Josh’s Jets or Chiefs played the 49ers and Raiders. Josh was supportive just as much while T.J. grew up in the SYFL and later helped Fallon win a state title in 2015.
“His first comment to me, and he was joking, was ‘you know a wolf is better than a bulldog?,” T.J. said. “He said that he was proud and he told me that I continue doing what I love to do and get a good education there. Overall, he was happy for me and said to stay healthy and continue my dream.”
Matua’s seen this story play out before with his oldest son signing a Division I scholarship 12 years ago. Now that he will have another son playing on college football’s biggest stage, he and the rest of the Mauga household couldn’t be happier.
“T.J. was a little shaky there but we’re so fortunate that Fresno came about,” said Matua, who went on the Fresno State visit. “He had Hawaii for sure. He would have went to Hawaii if there was nothing else. Things just happened and we lucked out.”
Josh was also recruited by Fresno State when Pat Hill was in charge of the program. Like T.J., Matua made the same visit with his oldest son more than a decade ago. But for Josh, it was important that he set an example during his recruiting process for future Greenwave stars, especially his brother.
“Anytime you have younger siblings or younger kids in general looking up to you, you always want to make the right choices and do right things,” Josh said. “You want to see them grow up to be the best person they can be as well. The whole recruiting process was exciting for me. I’m glad I got the opportunity. Now that I get chance to see my brother go through the whole thing, it’s pretty awesome.”
And Wednesday’s signing was just the beginning for T.J. Next up will be how he fares in the Mountain West Conference and in the classroom, but he can’t help to ignore that he kept his dream of playing in the NFL alive with the Fresno State offer.
“It was really important for me. My dream is to make it to the NFL,” T.J. said. “I want to be able to get my degree first, that way I can have a job to fall back on. A lot of people told me before that football’s only going to last so long and you need something to fall back on. That was really important.”