G Toniu Fonoti moves very explosively for a man of his size
Cadillac Williams got a new perspective on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' newly-beefed up offensive line last week. Call it the "posterior view."
On any given play, when the Bucs' offense breaks the huddle with a clap Williams basically stays in place while the offensive linemen trot forward a few yards to form a wall. And at times last week, during the first set of offseason workouts that featured both veterans and rookies, Williams found himself staring at the back side of a very big wall.
"Basically, my first impression is 'big guys,'" said the NFL's reigning Rookie of the Year. "Big, athletic guys. That kind of puts a smile on my face."
There were about three lines worth of guards, centers and tackles on the practice field last week, and the overall size of the blocking front depended on the specific five-man combinations that were put together. There is simply no way of knowing, at this point, who will actually be starting on the Buccaneers' offensive line this fall. Every one of last year's starters is under contract, and the team has added four intriguing new pieces in free agents Toniu Fonoti and Torrin Tucker and draftees Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood.
However, if the Bucs do make any lineup changes in their front five, you can count on this: They'll be getting bigger. The average height-weight vitals of those four is a bit over 6-5 and 324 pounds using published roster numbers, and it's fair to say that some of those listings may be a bit forgiving.
Yes, as Cadillac noticed right away, these new Bucs are big men, and Fonoti is the biggest of them all.
At 6-4, Fonoti is about average height on the Bucs' line, but he is listed at 350 pounds and by his own admission is likely to keep the needle on the scale spinning past that neat little figure. But this is not a man struggling with an out-of-control weight issue; this is simply a man of large proportions, from hands to head to trunk. Two years ago with the San Diego Chargers Fonoti used his mass so powerfully, particularly in opening running lanes for LaDainian Tomlinson, that he was named a first-team All-Pro by Sports Illustrated.
He's also very easy-going, at least off the field, and he's used to questions about his weight. He knows that any struggles he might experience will be tied to what the scale says, because people don't expect 370-pound men to move athletically enough to play in the NFL. He tends to shrug when the topic comes up.
"I'm a big guy," said Fonoti. "I can't really say anything else but, I'm a big guy."
Did the Bucs' specifically want to add bulk up front as they continue to rework their running attack from shaky to dangerous? That's certainly a reasonable assumption, given the acquisition of Fonoti and the early-draft focus on the offensive line. Fonoti had to notice that trend when the rookies joined in practice last week, but he thinks a different trait ties the newcomers together and explains the Bucs' interest.
"They just really want [to play] a hard-nosed type of football," he said. "I'm going to try to bring that. I'm going to do my part to make this O-line fierce, try to make everybody recognize this O-line."
An unstoppable drive-blocker at a school that loves just that – Nebraska – Fonoti was the 39th player drafted overall in 2002, the second guard after Auburn's Kendall Simmons. Scouts loved that he could explode up out of his stance and surge forward like a man much smaller and even complimented his pass-protection skills in such areas as sliding his feet and using his hands properly.
Fonoti won a starting job as a rookie, opening all but two games for the Chargers in 2002 and helping Tomlinson blast for 1,683 rushing yards. He missed 2003 with a foot injury but came back very strong in 2004 and was once again one of Tomlinson's primary road-graders. He was a right guard in '02 and a left guard in '04; he doesn't particularly care which side the Bucs want him on.
"They're switching me around," said Fonoti. "They've played me a lot at left. Probably at some point down the line they'll try me at right. For me, it doesn't really matter. Just flip the playsheet and it's the same thing."
Last season was a trying one for Fonoti, who missed most of the first half of the season with a hand injury. He was later traded to the Minnesota Vikings, who were depleted at guard and center due to their own rash of injuries, but he made it into just one game with his new team before sustaining a groin injury that cost him the rest of the season.
So now he's in the unusual position of picking up with his third team just a little over a year after being named one of the best players in the league at his position. He's hoping that this latest move from Minnesota to Tampa will have the same energizing effect on his career as it did on that of defensive tackle Chris Hovan last year.
"Yeah, I'm trying to do the same thing," said Fonoti. "You know, another restart, another place, another team, another management and stuff like that…I'm just trying to get used to it. I'm just getting used to the plays and the terms and stuff like that, just trying to pick it up and catch up with some of the guys here."
Like everybody else on the field this time of year, Fonoti is also trying to work his way into peak playing condition. He figures his optimal playing weight is about 370 pounds and says he is close to reaching that goal, perhaps about 10 pounds off. He is also working hard to learn the Bucs' complicated play-calling verbiage, even though he's familiar with most of the base plays. He needs to be ready when the real competition begins in training camp, because of all that Buccaneer O-line depth (and, now, breadth). After all, he'll be simultaneously pushing last year's starters for a job and trying to keep the new blood from taking his.
"With the vets coming, they've had their jobs so we've got to work for it," said Fonoti. "We've got young bucks coming in, too, especially on the right side, the two draft picks we got. We try to help them out, but at the same time it's a business, so we've got to do what we've got to do to keep our jobs, too."