- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

INDIANAPOLIS A year ago, the Washington Redskins had a pair of question marks at guard and the opportunity to draft Steve Hutchinson, a powerful, mobile blocker out of Michigan who was considered the best prospect at his position.

Instead they picked wide receiver Rod Gardner and signed several veteran free agents at guard, a plan that worked well enough once Ben Coleman's swollen knee healed and Dave Szott regrouped from a long layoff. But now the contracts of Coleman and Szott have expired and the club, evaluating another group of young talent at this weekend's NFL Combine, once again has a pair of question marks at the position.

This time the pick is 18th and the guard is Nebraska's Toniu Fonoti, a 6-foot-4, 349-pound behemoth who set a variety of Cornhuskers records for pancake blocks and helped the program to its 13th and 14th NCAA rushing titles.

Fonoti, 20, is considered by many to be the draft's best guard, though Colorado's Andre Gurode also gets strong consideration. However, there's a good chance Fonoti will be around when Washington makes its first pick April 21 because top guards frequently slide to the late first round while a higher premium is put on other positions.

The theory goes that a team can focus on getting two standout tackles (which the Redskins have in Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen) and then plug in whoever at the three interior positions. However, it's a theory that many personnel directors, coaches and players would dispute not the least Fonoti, who simply laughs when told of it.

"If you don't have a tough inside, you won't be able to handle anything," Fonoti said yesterday after undergoing a series of tests and interviews at RCA Dome. "For me, it starts with the inside three."

Washington began shuffling at guard early in 2000, when oft-injured right guard Tre Johnson blew out his knee. Then late in the season, while Jay Leeuwenburg filled in for Johnson, the battered Achilles' tendon of left guard Keith Sims finally gave, leaving veteran Andy Heck and rookie Mookie Moore as stopgaps.

In 2001 Johnson, Sims, Leeuwenburg, Heck and Moore were gone. Coleman couldn't play until Week 6, by which point Washington's season was nearly capsized by an 0-5 start, and Szott was slow to adapt after being injured virtually all of 2000. Matt Campbell got five starts but now is gone to the expansion Houston Texans, leaving only several second-year players under contract.

Thus a tempting fix is Fonoti (his full name is pronounced Toe-Nee-YOU Foe-No-TEA), an American Samoa native who moved to Hawaii at 10. His forte is pure power, as his 32 repetitions of the 225-pound bench press yesterday and school-record 379 pancake blocks attest. He also set Nebraska knockdown marks for a season (201 in 2001) and a game (32 against Texas Tech last October).

"I take a lot of pride in what I do," Fonoti said. "[A pancake block is] like a defensive end's sack or a quarterback's touchdown. That's a great feeling."

After helping drive the nation's No.1 rushing offense each of his two seasons as a starter, Fonoti departs Nebraska as a junior. In 2001, the Cornhuskers reached the national title game despite losing three starters on the offensive line, and Fonoti individually earned first-team All-American honors and was one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy (won by Miami tackle Bryant McKinnie, a likely top-five pick).

Fonoti played left guard in high school and college, but in the pros he likely projects to the more run-oriented right side. In any case, he will have an adjustment to make to his NFL team after seeing few passing plays at Nebraska.

"[Teams here have] asked me what my strong points are, and I told them it was running, but I also can do passing," Fonoti said. "I think I have [enough work in pass-blocking], but I also think I need to keep on working on it. I know there's going to be a lot of different techniques that the pros have."

Mastering those techniques should allow Fonoti to make the NFL jump, as Hutchinson did last year. The Seattle Seahawks selected Hutchinson 17th overall, and he helped the club to the league's No.9 run game and solidified what is now considered one of the league's best left sides. The Redskins passed on the draft's top-rated guard a year ago but might not this time.

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