Jeff Tedford’s restoration efforts at Fresno State have made him a regular on recruiting trails in the Stanislaus District.
The Bulldogs' second-year football coach signed two of the area’s top high school talents in December — Oakdale defensive lineman Matt Kjeldgaard and Downey linebacker Isaiah Johnson — luring one away (Johnson) from the clutches of UCLA. Johnson is already on campus; he enrolled in January.
Now, Tedford is in hot pursuit of another from the northern Central Valley: Modesto Junior College offensive lineman Vaatofu Sauvao, a powerful yet still untapped prospect. Tedford has offered Sauvao a scholarship, joining a list of suitors that also includes Texas and Lamar University.
How Sauvao would fit in Fresno State's immediate plans remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The former Pirate joins a program completely re-made under Tedford, an alumnus and former Cal coach. The Bulldogs enjoyed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in Football Bowl Subdivision history in Tedford's first season, winning 10 games after losing 11 the season prior.
"I think people were excited about Tedford even before the season," MJC coach Rusty Stivers said. "I know a lot of alumni were not surprised with the success they had this season."
The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Sauvao was a two-time all-state selection with the Pirates, who reached the Northern California state semifinals in 2016. He was also the team captain this last fall, helping protect a wide receiver-turned-quarterback (Danny Velasquez) and lead Modesto Junior College to a Gridiron Classic Bowl victory in November.
“He has great size and combined with his physical nature, he is powerful in the run game and does not get pushed around in pass protection,” Stivers said. “It was fun watching Mustafa (Noel-Johnson) and Vaa battle in practice, 1-on-1s."
Stivers said the coaching staff had to keep Sauvao’s strength and intensity in check during workouts and practices.
“He arrived with great size and came to us overweight, but extremely physical,” Stivers said. “When he started practicing with us, we had defensive coaches asking for him to calm down because they were afraid he was going to hurt somebody.
“When he gets to a program with nutritional and strength programs, he is going to elevate his game.”
Sauvao will be the third player from last year’s team to receive a Division I scholarship, joining wide receiver Michael Thompson (Eastern Michigan) and defensive lineman Noel-Johnson (Colorado).
This follows a record haul in 2016, when Stivers and his staff sent four players to Division I universities, the most in program history.
Among those that signed were: All-American and record-setting running back Jay Green, now at Southern Utah; Sacramento State quarterback Wyatt Clapper; wide receiver Ravon Alexander, who has since left Boise State; and Brandon Dabney, a ball-hawking defensive back at Lamar University in Texas.
Beyond the wins and losses, Stivers is proud his program has established a reputation as a gateway to a four-year institution.
Sauvao will be the next to move on, but he won't be the last. Velasquez has begun to receive mild D-I interest as a dual-threat quarterback and could see his recruitment spike following two combines scheduled for later this spring.
"Transferring football student-athletes to the highest level is the goal of our program," Stivers said, "and we are excited about the early success."