As first impressions go, transfers Johari Branch, Ami Finau and Mosiah Nasili-Kite are meshing nicely within the Maryland football program in their debut seasons.
Branch, a junior, has entrenched himself as the starting left guard in all three games, and Finau, another junior, has done the same at nose tackle, making nine tackles. Nasili-Kite, a sophomore, started the first two games at defensive tackle and collected six tackles, including two sacks in the Terps' 35-19 victory at Penn State on Nov. 7.
“We’re all starting, and we’re all making a name for ourselves,” said Nasili-Kite (pronounced Nah-sillee Kee-tay). “It means the world because just a year ago, we were struggling in junior college. So I’m happy for them, and I know that they’re happy for me. We’ve just got to keep grinding and keep winning.”
Branch, Finau and Nasili-Kite are also linked by their decisions to play the 2019 season together at Independence Community College, the junior college in Independence, Kansas, that was the subject of Netflix’s “Last Chance U” in its third and fourth seasons in 2017 and 2018, respectively. (A fourth transfer from Independence, junior linebacker TJ Kautai, opted out earlier because of coronavirus concerns.)
The reality series sought to illustrate the machinations of junior colleges that serve as final opportunities for troubled football players to prove themselves to schools at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level.
It’s a sliver of celebrityhood on a team that already includes sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, freshman running back Isaiah Jacobs, the younger brother of Oakland Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, and redshirt freshman wide receiver Dino Tomlin, the son of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
“It’s always going to be there,” Finau (full name is pronounced Aw-me Fee-now) said of the “Last Chance U” affiliation. “People are always going to talk about it, like, ‘Oh, these are the boys from Independence.’ And I don’t mind, and I don’t think any of the other boys from Independence mind either. I think it’ll be OK, and I don’t think it will ever go away.”
“Watching it on Netflix before I got there, I probably would have been happy to get on camera and stuff,” said Branch (first name pronounced Joe-hah-ree), adding that he had watched the first five seasons. “But being there, you notice that it’s nothing great. You don’t care about the cameras. You care about taking care of your business in the classroom and on the football field so that you can get out. That was the main goal. The cameras, I felt like they were a distraction. When I saw the cameras, I tried to stay as far away from them as I could because I wasn’t trying to get distracted. I was trying to stay focused and get out of there.”
Still, the remnants of “Last Chance U” were visible. Players practiced on a new artificial turf field emblazoned with the series title and funded by revenue generated from the reality series. Coaches recounted examples of players from the 2017 and 2018 teams acting up when the cameras were recording.
For all of the headaches the series created for Independence Community College, current coach Kiyoshi Harris said he does not tire of references to “Last Chance U.”
“It did a lot for the city of Independence, and it did a lot for the school itself,” said Harris, who was the associate head coach, offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator in 2017 and 2018. “For the two years that they were here, we learned a lot. We were able to get our name out there and our brand out there for a little bit, and it’s still carrying on. It will carry on for years to come, but now it’s gone, and we’ve kind of moved on. But it doesn’t bother me. More important to me is we want to be known as a school that has some of the best football players that play some of the best college football in the country.”
After going 2-8 overall and 1-7 in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference in 2018, the Pirates went 8-2 and 7-1 and captured the league championship in 2019. For Branch, Finau and Nasili-Kite, the objective was achieved without any assistance from Netflix.
“We didn’t have to worry about cameras,” said Nasili-Kite, who had been dismissed from Washington for a violation of team rules. “It was just strictly ball and the team. It’s easy when the camera is on you to act a certain way, and I think that’s why the year before we got there, the team was 2-8. The year when I got there, we went 8-2.”
During a three-day span in December, Branch, Finau and then Nasili-Kite signed with the Terps. Branch succeeded Sean Christie who started all 12 games at left guard last fall, Finau replaced Oluwaseun Oluwatimi who made 10 starts, and Nasili-Kite earned the defensive end spot over senior Sam Okuayinonu.
Tagovailoa said the three Independence Community College players have been quick learners.
“They’re taking advantage of every opportunity that they have over here,” he said. “I’m really proud of how they’re taking advantage of everything. They’re having fun and that’s the biggest thing for me.”
Junior middle linebacker Chance Campbell (Calvert Hall) said the former Pirates have not made a big deal about their ties to “Last Chance U.”
“It doesn’t really register to me,” he said. “We just have guys on our team. Everybody on the team, especially them, has adjusted well and kind of bought into everything that we’re trying to do.”
Branch, Finau and Nasili-Kite are tight. The trio can usually be found eating a meal from McDonald’s (“When we were at JUCO, McDonald’s was like a five-star meal,” Nasili-Kite joked. “So we’ve never lost track of that.”), watching football highlights or listening to music off YouTube, or playing Fortnite or Madden on PlayStation 4.
Finau, whose mother is a cousin of Nasili-Kite’s mother, said the three former Pirates have fed off each other’s presence.
“It’s really helpful seeing each other at practices and workouts, pushing each other,” he said. “We basically remind each other – and we don’t have to say anything, we just look at each other – that we were struggling last year, practicing in the snow. The feeling of having nothing at JUCO and then having everything at a D-I is the best feeling ever.”
The differences between Maryland and Independence are stark, according to the players. At Independence, a player may have to wait hours to see the school’s one full-time trainer who was responsible for treating athletes from six or seven other sports at the school. After enduring 10-hour bus rides to road games for the Pirates, the players boarded a plane to fly to the Terps' season opener at Northwestern on Oct. 24.
Harris, the Independence coach, said he has watched every Maryland game so far and kept track of the progress of his three former players.
“It puts a smile on my face, but it also makes me sad because I don’t have those guys,” he said with a laugh. “Those guys right there are difference-makers, and that comes around once every five years or seven years. … I’m happy for the guys because that’s what they wanted. They wanted to go through JUCO to get to the highest level, and I think they’re doing that by being at Maryland.”
Branch said he, Finau and Nasili-Kite believe their decisions to make a detour to Independence has been validated by their ability to start and earn substantial playing time with the Terps.
“We all knew that we wanted to have an impact as soon as we got here,” he said. “Me, Mo and Ami, we have a history at JUCO where we were working out every day in the weight room and getting ready. So we knew that all of the hard work that people didn’t see while we were in JUCO when people didn’t know what our names were, that would pay off. And look at us now.”