Between stops on his life journey, Hekili Keli‘iliki took all the time he needed to regroup back in familiar environs.
“I went home for 10 days and came here,” the Hawaii third-year sophomore running back said.
Keli‘iliki, who was born in Utah and came to adult age in Arkansas, did more traveling than most by the time they reach college age. Coming out of high school, Keli‘iliki went on a two-year church mission to Brisbane, Australia, where he was immersed in speaking Mandarin Chinese.
It was then time to revive his dormant abilities, which he’d tried to maintain with frequent running, push-ups and pull-ups. It wasn’t football immersion, but it was something.
At Hawaii, head coach Nick Rolovich and offensive coordinator Brian Smith gave him a chance coming off his two years away from the game when few others would.
#HawaiiFB running back Hekili Keli’iliki talks about his position group and how people have fared pronouncing his name in the time since he relocated from Arkansas to Hawaii. pic.twitter.com/uAqlez2nah
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) August 16, 2019
Keli‘iliki redshirted upon arrival, then saw action in nine games in his second overall season of 2018, pretty much all on special teams. But that allowed him to travel and feel like he was learning and progressing at the same time.
“Most programs, they’re not looking for people to redshirt right when they come in,” he said. “They’re looking for people to contribute right away. But the coaches took a gamble on me, so I’m just doing everything I can to show them it was worth it.”
This fall camp feels different than his last two; he’s making inroads at his natural position, which includes experienced competition in Dayton Furuta, Fred Holly III and Miles Reed.
The self-reliant Keli‘iliki has leaned upon his experiences, like when he was immersed in a nine-week Mandarin training course with no prior ability to speak it before getting tossed in the deep end of the pool. Once he got to Australia, he switched off regularly between Mandarin and English — which included plenty of Australian jargon to learn.
“That’s something I carried over from my mission: being disciplined in self-study,” he said. “Understanding this is something I need to be able to do on the fly. Being able to take that and apply it to schoolwork, apply it to football, just understanding a lot of learning is upon myself.”
He desires to be a doctor someday and is currently in pursuit of an his undergraduate degree in biology, while pursuing a parallel degree in Chinese to keep his tongue sharp.
Keli‘iliki, whose father hails from the North Shore, has family spread around the islands. He smiles when asked about people back in Bentonville, Ark., having difficulty pronouncing his name; it’s difficult for them there, and better here (as you’d expect), though not universally.
That mature approach has been a welcome inclusion to Smith’s charges in the backfield.
“It’s awesome. Zero babysitting necessary. He was someone who came here that’s extremely self-sufficient,” Smith said. “He’s been taking care of himself for two years. Very disciplined. So anything you tell him to do, he’s going to do it. There’s no issues with communication. And I think there’s leadership there too, when you do have older kids.”
Stylistically, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Keli‘iliki is a “one-cut vertical” runner, said Smith. The team is working with him on his pass protection and developing his overall knowledge of the run game. There could be times he complements the speedy Holly (four rushing TDs in 2018) and “Froot Truck” Furuta (two rushing TDs) in the coming season. Reed came on late last season.
“Right now he’s really developing a role. It’s tough when you are that deep with guys with experience to kind of push through,” Smith said. “What he adds … is being someone who’s extremely physical in the run game. So he’s a one-cut downhill kid. The guys have had a chance to see him in scrimmages. The pile’s always moving forward. He’s never getting knocked back. So it’s a great physical dimension. I think the O-line loves having someone like that behind them. It gives them a lot of confidence and a lot of juice.”
There’s been enough action to go around in the preseason.
“I feel like we’ve all gotten our good share of reps,” Keli‘iliki said. “With Dayton, Freddy and Miles, returning starters from last year, I’m just trying to work my way in there. But I feel like Coach Nick is doing a good job of helping us all get the reps to help us all develop.”