Josh Letuligasenoa has been through a personal whirlwind since he played his last meaningful down in a Cal Poly uniform nearly two years ago.
Once considered among the elite defensive ends in the entire FCS, Letuligasenoa is eager to make up for lost time after being academically ineligible following a breakout sophomore season in 2014.
It keeps the physically imposing senior from the Sacramento area motivated through the dog days of fall camp. He fights back a smile when talking about the Mustangs’ season opener Sept. 2 at Nevada, knowing what it took to get back to this point.
“Sometimes lessons are learned the hard way,” eighth-year head coach Tim Walsh said. “But he’s back, and he’s ready to roll.”
The second of three brothers to play football at Cal Poly, Letuligasenoa made his first start during the 2014 season opener at New Mexico State. He recorded 11 tackles, including 1½ for lost yardage, and laid the foundation for an all-Big Sky Conference season that included 65 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.
Following that 18-point loss to the Aggies, Walsh identified Letuligasenoa as a rising star.
“Overall, his effort, how hard he plays,” Walsh then told The Tribune, “will be inspirational for everybody to watch.”
Such undeniable talent — he stands a chiseled 6-foot-2, 267 pounds — and supreme leadership is a rare combination.
That’s part of the reason it was so difficult for some teammates to accept when Letuligasenoa told them he would have to sit out his junior season after failing a spring Physics II course by three-tenths of a percentage point.
He was already voted a team captain when the industrial technology major saw the heart-wrenching grade he won’t soon forget. Yet Letulisagenoa said he doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the professor who wouldn’t round up the 59.7 percent, saying “that’s the grade I earned.”
It still didn’t make breaking the news to his coaches, teammates and, eventually, his football-loving family any easier.
The first call was to Walsh. Then he addressed teammates who were still in San Luis Obispo for summer workouts.
“A lot of them were sad and confused, and the older guys were disappointed,” Letuligasenoa said. “I was disappointed in myself because the older guys from last year — Tu’uta (Inoke), Burton (De Koning), Chris Brown — all those guys were like some of my best friends.”
Letuligasenoa said he was in tears when he called his older brother, Lefi, a former first-team all-conference performer and three-year starter for the Mustangs on the offensive line.
A few days later he was back home, informing his parents, Maaka and Stacie, he was ineligible. More tears followed — and more disappointment. Letuligasenoa said letting his support base down “was probably the hardest part.”
The Letuligasenoas still got to watch their youngest son, Noah, play as a reserve linebacker during his redshirt freshman year last fall. He made one tackle in seven games and would have pushed for more playing time in 2016 if it weren’t for his own misfortune.
Coming out of Elk Grove High School in 2014, Noah Letuligasenoa was considered arguably the best athlete of the family, earning Sacramento Bee player of the year honors as a senior.
It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Noah Letuligasenoa emerge from a crowded fray at linebacker as a third-year sophomore, given the family’s football pedigree.
But after sustaining his sixth concussion during Cal Poly’s spring practice, Noah Letuligasenoa opted to take a medical retirement from football. The decision wasn’t made hastily, with plenty of input from team trainers, doctors and family.
Josh Letuligasenoa may have seen the writing on the wall even earlier.
“We would come to school in the morning during the spring,” Josh Letuligasenoa said. “We would park the car, and he would take the keys because he was done with school before me during the days. He would go (to class), and he would call me, and he wouldn’t know where we parked the car.
“He was forgetting things like that, and that’s when I realized I was actually scared.”
During fall camp, Noah Letuligasenoa does what he can to help out around practice and stay involved with the team. Cal Poly is honoring his scholarship to complete his degree in communication studies, and it’s a safe bet he’ll be his older brother’s biggest supporter on the sidelines this fall.
A lot is expected of Josh Letuligasenoa coming into the season.
The Mustangs’ top returning tackler from last season, senior linebacker Joseph Gigantino III, said Letuligasenoa was a team leader two years ago and more of the same is expected this fall.
“Now that he’s back, we voted him a captain,” Gigantino said. “That shows that we respect the guy and think he’s a player. He’s gonna come in right away and make plays for us.”
His leadership-talent combination will especially be relied upon as Cal Poly makes the switch to a 3-4 defense, a formation that defensive coordinator Josh Brown said showed promise when used last season, utilizes their athleticism and provides more flexibility in coverage.
“Just the experience part of it is obviously a positive thing for us,” Brown said. “Then the leadership thing, there probably isn’t a guy on our team that works harder than him, too.”
While it seems unlikely, Letuligasenoa slyly hopes a few teams in the Big Sky might have forgotten about him after his one-year absence.
He plans to bring “constant energy” to a revamped defensive line with a focus on pressuring opposing quarterbacks and racking up “as many T-F-Ls as possible.”
“He has the ability to be the most dominant player in this league,” Walsh said.
If there’s a silver lining to be taken from Letuligasenoa’s misstep, perhaps it’s the constant remainder to strive for greatness.
“Academics, athletics, doing music, art, or whatever you’re doing in life,” he said, “just try to be the best at everything to do.”