GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Shortly after he was introduced to the students, faculty and media at a press conference at St. Petersburg Catholic High, Tod Creneti met with his new coaching staff.
Creneti did not yet know some of the coaches he inherited, so as he looked around the room, he asked where the big guy with the long hair was –the guy who sat behind them at the press conference.
The other coaches laughed, knowing exactly who Creneti was talking about.
“I thought he was 25 years old,’’ Creneti said Thursday. “I assumed he was a coach, not a player.’’
That was four years ago when Creneti first met Gators offensive lineman Jon Halapio. Creneti recently left St. Pete Catholic to become head coach at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal in Bradenton, but he continues to closely monitor Halapio’s career with the Gators.
The 6-foot-3, 324-pound Halapio was the big man on campus in his final two seasons in high school playing for Creneti, and with four offensive line starters from last year’s team gone, Halapio is suddenly viewed as a leader on Florida’s young line.
Creneti isn’t concerned about whether the redshirt sophomore can handle the increased responsibility. In fact, he said a leadership role fits Halapio perfectly.
Before camp opened, Creneti and his family came to Gainesville to visit. Halapio was their personal tour guide, taking the hands of Creneti’s young daughters – ages 6 and 9 – and showing them around the team’s locker room and other facilities.
That’s the Halapio that Creneti has known since first spotting him at that press conference.
“He’s the oldest of five kids,’’ Creneti said. “When he made his decision to go to Florida, it wasn’t just so his family could still see him play. He wanted to stay close enough to home so he can still be a positive influence on his brothers and sisters.
“It’s a role he cherishes. If that doesn’t tell you a ton about the kid then nothing will.’’
Halapio’s younger siblings (two brothers, two sisters) witnessed their brother start making his mark at UF when he started seven games as a redshirt freshman and emerged as a potential future leader along the offensive line.
Halapio is ready for more. Entrenched as the starting right guard, Halapio has enjoyed a stellar camp, drawing praise from his defensive teammates as the most difficult lineman to go against in practice.
“I feel real comfortable,’’ he said. “There are a lot of young guys on the team, players that are younger than me and they see me as a leader. It makes it easier because I’m older than them and they respect me.’’
Halapio has earned that respect the old-fashioned way. He tucks his long hair inside his helmet and gets to work. He is the strongest player on the line according to the team’s strength coaches, serving as a huge road block for opposing defensive linemen.
“He is solid,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s a player you want to be able to build around up front. He’s one of the guys up front with some experience so we are relying on him for a good season.’’
Halapio showed signs of improvement late last year when he broke into the starting lineup on a regular basis. While he is listed at well over 300 pounds, Halapio isn’t a bump in the road.
He can move for a man his size, continuing a family tradition. Halapio grew up in a football family, his older cousin David Latu a former offensive lineman at College of the Canyons in California, and a younger cousin, Will Latu, is currently an offensive lineman at West Virginia.
The expanded role as a leader is something Creneti discussed with Halapio during his recent visit.
“He embraces that role,’’ Creneti said.
In his two seasons coaching Halapio, Creneti said he could tell right way that he “was a special talent.’’ But more than that, he noticed Halapio thrived on establishing positive relationships centered on trust, a perfect trait for a leader of the offensive line.
With four seniors often next to him a year ago, Halapio at times felt out of rhythm as he tried to mesh in. He doesn’t expect that to be an issue this season. Two potential starters on the offensive line – left guard Kyle Koehne and center Jon Harrison – are Halapio’s roommates.
They have a bond off the field that translates well on the field.
“When we go home we all sit on the couch and watch film together,” Halapio said. “We communicate a lot better on the field, so it’s good that we’re good friends off the field.’’
Halapio plans to build the same relationships with others on the offensive line. After all, that’s part of being a good team leader.
“We're all starting pretty much new," Halapio said. "New system, new year, new everything. Everybody is just coming into this thing trying to prove something."