Kenny Estes lost something that was rightfully his. Now it’s time to take it back.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a five part series profiling the five members of the University of Hawai‘i football team from Kaua‘i. One profile will run each Saturday leading to Hawai‘i’s season opening game against Colorado, Sept. 3.
TWO YEARS AGO he was so close he could feel it. After a red shirt year and another spent as a blue collar special teams worker, Kenny Estes was in line to inherit the University of Hawai’i’s starting free-safety position.
Estes had all of the tools to become a strong defensive starter for the Warriors. He was strong and athletic. The 6-foot, 210-pound safety mixed abundant physical talents with a strong work ethic on and off the field. By the end of the 2009 spring drills, his transition from the 2005 KIF Offensive Player of the Year to ball-hawking defensive back was just about complete.
Then he hurt his shoulder.
Two years later, Estes is back to claim what was once his.
“My expectations this year are to start,” Estes said. “I want that position. I’ve worked so hard to get here.”
ESTES HAS HAD a history of shoulder problems over the years, and the one he suffered in 2009 knocked him out for the majority of fall camp. With Estes on the sidelines, Mana Silva and Spencer Smith firmly established themselves as the team’s safeties and Estes was sent back to the special teams for the next two seasons.
Estes could have sulked and pouted about his golden opportunity being squandered. Who could blame him? One moment he was the projected starter, the next he’s toiling around on special teams while two other guys were staring at his position.
“It was a big setback for me,” Estes said. “I was doing really good in the spring and then I got hurt and fell out of the loop.”
But Estes put his head down and focused on regaining his spot. He became a force on special teams, being known for flying down the field with reckless abandon.
“He’s always been strong on special teams for us,” Hawai‘i head coach Greg McMackin said. “He has no fear. He makes big plays.”
And so Estes worked hard and bided time. Now he’s finally back to where he was two years ago: as the projected starting strong-safety for the Warriors — a position he doesn’t plan on relinquishing anytime soon.
“I knew I would get this opportunity again,” Estes said. “I knew that if I did good on special teams and show the coaches that I can make big plays, tackle and that I’m a good athlete, it would show them I can do the same thing on defense.”
McMackin said the biggest improvement he’s seen from Estes is his football smarts. Estes has always had a lot of natural talent. In high school Estes was a prolific soccer player and set several KIF records in track and field. He even booted a 50-yard field goal for Waimea as the team’s kicker. He’s always been an athlete, but now he’s a football player.
“He’s always been one of the faster guys on the team,” McMackin said. “Now he’s one of the smarter guys.”
Estes evolution into a smart football players hasn’t come by just chance. This fall Estes has spent as much time in the film room and reading the playbook as he has on the field. On Friday, in-between two-a-day drills, Estes snuck away to the library to brush up on the playbook before putting the pads back on for the afternoon’s workout.
“I’m studying every chance I get,” he said. “I do it before bed, after practice…I’m really just trying to prove to the coaches that I have the smarts to play safety and I want to show them that I can be a responsible player for them.”
BARRING INJURY, Estes is three weeks away from achieving his goal. McMackin said Estes — as of Wednesday — is the staring strong safety heading into the Warrior’s season opener against Colorado on Sep. 3.
With only a year left of eligibility, Estes knows that he has to make as much as he can out of this opportunity, especially with all it took to get back on top of the depth chart.
“I have a different mentality this year. It’s my senior season,” Estes said. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long now it’s time to show what I’ve got.”
Tyson Alger, sports writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 237) or by emailing talger@ thegardenisland.com. Follow him on twitter.com/tysonalger.