SAMMAMISH — On this summer day on the sprawling campus of Eastside Catholic, the clanging of weights and booming bass has subsided in favor of a starkly different vibe from the football field below.
On the metal bleachers, some of the most coveted recruits in the nation come together with their teammates and parents to support a young cheerleading camp ending the day with a routine. Hannah Montana’s Nobody’s Perfect blares from the speakers.
Nowhere in Washington is there a higher saturation of high-school football talent than on these bleachers. Many will be playing on Saturdays soon, and some on Sundays. According to coach Dominic Daste, every power-five team in college football has sent at least one coach to visit Eastside Catholic this last year. But nobody has drawn more interest than J.T. Tuimoloau.
The defensive lineman rocketed onto the national radar a year ago when he debuted atop 247Sports’ ranking of the 2021 recruiting class. He earned his first college scholarship offer (from Washington) after the third game of his freshman season. He’s received dozens since, from every top program you can imagine.
So he’s spent the summer before his junior year darting between football practice and basketball tournaments, all while managing the attention of being the nation’s most sought-after prospect.
“It’s been a busy summer,” Tuimoloau said. “I took a lot of ice baths this summer.”
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Football may be where Tuimoloau one day makes his fortune, but it was the last sport he picked up. He played basketball first (and still does, a top recruit on the hardwood, too), then baseball (he played third base and outfield).
Tuimoloau sheepishly describes himself as a “big kid” growing up. But around sixth grade, he approached his dad, Ponce De Leon, and told him, I want to lose weight. I want to get skinny.
For six weeks, J.T. put down the football, the basketball, the baseball — all he did was run with his dad. Everyday. For six weeks.
“Seven days a week,” Tuimoloau said. “It became a plan: Get out of school, go to Todd Beamer and run.”
J.T. and his dad would arrive at Todd Beamer High School and wouldn’t leave for hours, running laps, stairs and the like. But that’s all they did — Mom didn’t allow J.T. to pick up a weight until he turned 16, which he did earlier this year.
Only a few months in, Tuimoloau lifts with such enthusiastic abandon; he hasn’t bothered to count his reps.
“I just go until it gets too heavy,” he said with a grin.
A far cry from the grade schooler who was nearly cut from his travel basketball team for being out of shape.
It wasn’t long after that Tuimoloau began to get noticed on the gridiron.
Brandon Huffman, 247Sports’ West Coast editor, said he remembers Tuimoloau at a 7-on-7 camp when he was in eighth grade.
“He was probably the best D-lineman there. He was an eighth grader — hadn’t even started high school,” Huffman said.
Tuimoloau now stands a lean 6 foot 4, 267 pounds. He collected 17 tackles for loss and six sacks as a sophomore, largely playing at rush end and outside linebacker. But as he bulks up, Tuimoloau projects to be a terrifyingly athletic interior lineman.
Daste, who’s in his first season as head coach, previously coached the offensive line and has seen Tuimoloau’s progression first hand — fine-tuning his hand-fighting and footwork, as well as his mental game.
“He’s grown by leaps and bounds,” Daste said. “I think when he first got here, pure athleticism got him over. … He’s really becoming a student of the game. It’s been impressive. And he wants to learn everything.”
A year after the No. 1 ranking, Tuimoloau has only strengthened his grip on the top spot. Not since Rashaan Gary, who went to Michigan in 2016, has there been such a consensus about the top prospect.
“As soon as we watched his film and saw his numbers physically,” Huffman said, “it was like, ‘OK, who’s number two?’ Then he had the season he had … again, it was like, ‘Who’s number two?’”
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Tuimoloau has taken a different tack to his recruitment than some of his top-ranked counterparts.
He’s on social media, but his parents control his Twitter account. It was actually his dad who encouraged him to create one, as J.T. began to generate buzz entering high school.
“My parents will show me, but I don’t really pay attention,” he said. “I don’t really ask my momma what people are posting. She’ll show me sometimes, and I’ll just be like, ‘Ah, OK.’”
For the Tuimoloaus, J.T.’s recruitment has been a family enterprise since the beginning. He began training with his father and grandfather, who also played and coached football. His mom is his “go-to person.” He takes his mind off it by playing PS4 with his 4-year-old brother, whom he recently introduced to Call of Duty.
Every call he makes to coaches, his parents are on the line.
It shows. While he’s close with Washington, and impressed by his visit to Alabama, Tuimoloau has approached the process with restraint. Don’t expect a list of finalists until he’s visited every campus he wants to see.
He once said he wanted to attend Stanford and be a doctor. Now he’s got an offer from Stanford, but has his eyes set on another backup plan to the NFL.
“I either want to be a chef or a doctor,” he said. “I really like making desserts, but I’ve got to stay away from it because I can’t be a sweet tooth.”
Daste was a top recruit in his own right, helping lead Washington to a Rose Bowl as an offensive lineman in 2001. He spent the next 15 years coaching collegiately, doing the recruiting himself, before landing at Eastside Catholic.
Now, he’s the filter through which any coach must go to speak with his sought-after roster. From camps to unofficial visits to social media, he’s watched as the recruiting process has transformed into a full-time job.
“It’s just changed so much. I think I got a phone call a week,” Daste said. “It’s just crazy to me that kids aren’t just falling out from exhaustion. …
“I think some of our kids who just recently made decisions, it wears them out and they want to get it over with.”
Tuimoloau is still a long way from the end of this process.
He talks with teammates Gee Scott Jr. and Sam Adams II, bound for Ohio State and Washington, respectively, about how they made their decisions. He’s consulting his parents on when to schedule his own visits (after games this season? next summer?). He spent his summer split between family, basketball and “the boys.”
But, really, what he’s focused on now is how to explode.
“Right now, I’m trying to work on my craft, so the next two years I just explode,” Tuimoloau said. “Freshman, sophomore, I had a decent years. But I want to come out and have junior year be my best year and senior year just top it off.”