Versatile Oregon State freshman linebacker Kesi Ah-Hoy a unique kick return option
Freshman linebacker Kesi Ah-Hoy had three kick returns for 58 yards against Washington State on Sept. 16.(Karl Maasdam/Oregon State Athletics)
CORVALLIS - Wide-eyed with his heart racing mid-play, it took Kesi Ah-Hoy a moment to process the unique situation in which he'd soon find himself. "Damn," he thought. "This is really coming to me." The Oregon State freshman inside linebacker has become the Beavers' off-return man on kickoffs, tasked with directing traffic for skill position players as they receive the ball. But in the Beavers' last game at Washington State on Sept. 16, the kickoff went his direction three times - and Ah-Hoy turned those returns into 58 yards. The sometimes-gruff exterior of Oregon State defensive coordinator Kevin Clune faded away into a smile when asked about the rare opportunity for the young defender. Soon-to-be Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher notably had six kick returns for 94 yards during his college career at New Mexico. Yet those chances for linebackers are few and far between, and Ah-Hoy's returns marked a first for both Clune and head coach Gary Andersen.
"This is brand-new," Clune said. Ah-Hoy acknowledged it was an odd feeling to have the ball back in his hands, yet it's far from an unfamiliar sensation. The Hawaii native was the 2015 Oahu Interscholastic Offensive Player of the Year and first team all-state as a junior, when he led Kahuku High School to an undefeated season and state championship as a running quarterback who primarily operated out of the Wildcat formation. Even though immense success came his way, Ah-Hoy said he never enjoyed playing the position. He dropped weight the following year and became a full-time safety after he said his high school coaches told him he could be a better long-term fit on defense. Little has gone right for the Oregon State defense through the season's first three games. The defense has given up 47.5 points per game and ranks 125th nationally in first downs allowed per game. But Ah-Hoy is an intriguing piece given the multifaceted skillset he's already put on display as a freshman. He has worked his way into the linebacker rotation behind experienced veterans Manase Hungalu and Jonathan Willis, ranking ninth on the team with 11 tackles in a reserve role.
"He's back there because we think if he needs to catch it, he can catch it and he can get some yards," coach Gary Andersen said of Ah-Hoy.
Ah-Hoy has a lengthy history with Oregon State. His older sister, Camilla, was a setter on the OSU volleyball team from 2006-09. He is also cousins with former Beavers defensive back Al Afalava, who became a sixth-round NFL draft pick in 2009. However, his desire to play defense nearly kept him away from his dream school. Ah-Hoy shocked his high school athletic department when he committed to the University of Hawaii after initially telling those around him that he wanted to leave the islands during college. But the Rainbow Warriors were offering him a chance to play defense, whereas OSU and other interested schools saw him on the offensive side of the ball as scouting services rated him one of the top high school running back prospects in the western United States.
It was not until a home visit from the OSU coaching staff as signing day approached that they informed Ah-Hoy they could see him as a defensive player. He wavered on his initial commitment and soon flipped to the Beavers. "I was a bit shocked because if they told me that a bit earlier, I would have committed like that," Ah-Hoy said, snapping his fingers. The Oregon State staff discussed the best fit throughout the recruiting season but earned commitments close to signing day from running backs Calvin Tyler and B.J. Baylor, building depth behind Ryan Nall and Artavis Pierce. Lead recruiter and associate coach Chad Kauha'aha'a said Ah-Hoy's size (6-foot, 220 pounds) helped keep him under the radar but that he heard a general consensus from Hawaii coaches that their target was the state's best player.
Upperclassmen soon identified Ah-Hoy as a breakout player during fall camp as he quickly moved up the depth chart. "He's going to be a great linebacker one day," said Hungalu, a team captain and Ah-Hoy's "big brother" during camp. Ah-Hoy's football aptitude helped put him in position to be a rare linebacker-kick returner hybrid. Andersen made it clear Ah-Hoy is not the ideal first option on returns, but noted that it did fit the linebacker's natural abilities. Even with his limited experience, his on-field intelligence gave coaches faith he was the best player to execute kick game adjustments on the fly. The comfort level remained when Ah-Hoy found himself in positon for a return. While Clune noted linebackers are not built for distance and can end up vomiting after long sprints, he's comfortable risking the mess if Ah-Hoy can deliver a big return.
"We'll hose him off afterwards," Clune said.