Boise State’s Kaniho is a grinder with a nose for the end zone (and an ear for country)

Boise State safety Kekaula Kaniho talks about his freshman success and more March 19, 2018. Dave Southorn

If we want to get technical, Hawaii is much farther south than Tennessee or Georgia or Texas, so perhaps Kekaula Kaniho’s love for country music is not that unexpected.

Boise State’s sophomore safety/nickel is a big fan of Zac Brown Band, Chris Young and Florida-Georgia Line. Growing up on the north shore of Oahu, their music resonated with the undersized yet driven Kaniho.

For a program that loves to tout its blue-collar roots, he’s been a perfect fit.

“I think the No. 1 thing about him is he’s got a great sense of urgency in everything he does,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “Whatever he’s doing is important to him. ... On top of that, he works as hard as anybody we’ve ever had in this program.”

Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos stresses to his guys that “separation is in the preparation,” and the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Kaniho was ready to make an instant impact even before practices began last fall.

“From the moment he came in here last year in the summer, he picked it up quick,” junior safety DeAndre Pierce said. “He hit me up as soon as he got here and wanted to get in the film room. He learned the defense a month before we started fall camp.”

At Kahuku High, Kaniho had an almost otherworldly ability not just to create turnovers, but to turn them into six points. He scored touchdowns on interceptions in five straight games his senior year.

He couldn’t keep that up at Boise State, could he? Well ...

Playing in all 14 games as a true freshman last season, Kaniho had two takeaways and he scored on both — a 34-yard fumble return Oct. 14 at San Diego State and a 53-yard interception return against Oregon on Dec. 16 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

“It was mostly just doing my 1/11th on defense, and sometimes when you do your job, the ball just hits you in the face,” Kaniho said. “It’s exciting, it’s fuel to the fire. When you get to the sideline, you’re like, ‘Let’s do this again.’ ”

Though that first score provided a rush, Kaniho said he savored the score against Oregon because he had dropped what would have been his first interception a month earlier at Colorado State. He credited the front seven’s ability to create pressure on Justin Herbert, forcing a bad throw.

“I was waiting for my next opportunity to get one. When I saw the ball coming ... I just looked it in all the way, went up to the end zone, saw the end zone,” Kaniho said. “It was a good feeling to finally get one and end the year on that note.”

Kaniho had 32 tackles (6.5 for loss), a forced fumble and four pass breakups to go with the touchdowns last season. In his first spring with the Broncos, he said he’s spending March and April “focusing on the little details.”

That’s part of what has made him successful and able to play a versatile role despite not being the typical size for a safety or a linebacker. Plus, he’s one of the smartest athletes in the Mountain West — he was one of 39 conference athletes across all sports to post a 4.0 GPA last fall.

“Being able to anticipate, studying, having a feel for what’s coming and playing fast on the snap,” Kaniho said, explaining how he compensates for his size at times.

One of the most popular songs by Kaniho’s favorite, Zac Brown Band, is “Whatever It Is.” That’s an apt description of what has made Kaniho an instant fan favorite and a key part of the defense. Whatever it is, it’s working.

“There’s some guys that have a feel for the game and you can’t explain it,” Harsin said. “You can try to prepare for everything, but you’re playing in the game and sometimes you just know (something) is about to happen.

“That’s something really good players have — that feel. Nobody can teach it, and he’s certainly got it.”

Boise State defensive back Kekaula Kaniho hustles during spring football practice Tuesday at Albertsons Stadium in Boise. Darin Oswald

Boise State’s Kaniho is a grinder with a nose for the end zone (and an ear for country)