Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Junior Soli happy to see his son in Arkansas
Arkansas nose guard Junior Soli sacks Ole Miss quarterback Josh Nelson during a game Saturday, Oct. 4, 1995, in Memphis, Tenn.
The scouting report on Mataio Soli is all about speed with his feet and his hands. Arkansas’ sophomore defensive end exudes explosive talent.
With Father’s Day approaching, it was time to visit Junior Soli. He’s just “Pops” to Mataio, but a great Razorback to those who remember early SEC days at Arkansas.
Junior Soli was an All-SEC nose tackle on the 1995 Arkansas team that won the SEC West. As a player he has one similarity to his son: both signed with a head coach who didn’t make it through their freshman season with the Razorbacks.
“I got one game with Jack Crowe,” said Junior, a four-year UA letterman whose first game was a 10-3 loss to The Citadel that resulted in Crowe’s firing the following day. “I did get to play for some great coaches, including Joe Pate and Jim Washburn. Those were my position coaches. Danny Ford got us back to winning.”
What Pate and Washburn raved about Junior was not a quick twitch, like Mataio. It was a great lower body, unusual natural strength. No one moved Junior Soli.
That was the story from Washburn when reached via phone. He ached for a chance to praise Junior, his player in his first two years on Ford’s staff.
“I’ve coached and coached against some great Samoan football players,” Washburn said. “All of them were warriors. Junior was the ultimate warrior.
“I respected him so much. Our guys looked up to him on the defensive line. He had an innate toughness.”
Pate recruited Junior out of Columbus, Ga., and sold him on the future Arkansas would have in the SEC. Junior said he didn’t really know much about the Razorbacks, or really any other program.
“My dad was Air Force,” he said. “We lived all over. I lived in Okinawa, (Japan), Germany and a lot of other places. So I didn’t know much about college football, or the NFL, either. I couldn’t tell you if the Dallas Cowboys or the Arkansas Razorbacks played each other.
“I just knew I thought Arkansas looked like a great place and Jack Crowe sounded like he was ready to tear the SEC apart.”
There were other offers. He recalls sitting in the office of Pat Dye at Auburn and Johnny Majors at Tennessee.
“Pat Dye was a great coach, God rest his soul,” Junior said. “He just passed away from the virus a few weeks ago. I went there on a visit and his office was just massive. He had a kitchen in his office. I’d never seen anything like it. It was the same at Tennessee, a huge office for the head coach.
“But I liked Joe Pate and wanted to play for him. It seemed like they were going to build something at Arkansas and eventually we did.”
Washburn and Pate recruited a great defensive line, Junior said, that included the likes of Steve Conley, Marcus Adair, David Sanders and Geno Bell by 1994.
“Then in ’95 we added Justin Brown, Ryan Hale and Melvin Bradley,” Junior said.
“That’s a heck of a group. A few of those got to play in the NFL. That was a tough bunch, even the backups.”
Washburn said none were tougher than Junior Soli.
“It was that lower body,” Washburn said. “He had the legs of a sumo wrestler. He was bottom loaded with great balance.
“I don’t think it was from lifting weights, just the strong lower body his parents gave him. He was a stud. He was an oak tree.”
Pate told Washburn the story of the recruitment.
“Junior was working out in physical education class at his high school when Joe saw him first,” Washburn said. “He said they had a rope to the ceiling and they would see how fast you could climb it.
“It was a tough drill. Junior went up the rope the fastest. Joe told me that everyone else was just using their hands. Junior wrapped his legs around the rope and was moving fast.
“The line that I remember from Joe was that if you put Tarzan and Junior side by side and had a rope challenge, Junior would win. That’s a 300-pounder going up a rope faster than Tarzan. Junior was just special in his own talents.”
That’s what they say about Mataio, just in a different way.
“Neither one us have great cardio,” Junior said. “Mataio’s cardio isn’t great. Mine sure was not. He inherited that from me. I never did want to run.”
But while Mataio’s cardio stamina might not be great, he can run. He’s been sub 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash at camps in high school, and likely an elite pass rusher now that he’s got a healthy hand. Mataio played with a “club” cast on his right hand for most of his freshman season after breaking a bone in the first game.
“He played with the broken hand for the rest of the game, that Portland State game when the big tight end crashed into him,” Junior said. “I saw it happen. Junior’s hand got trapped inside their bodies when they went down.
“It’s interesting because his junior year in high school, he broke his leg – actually both bones in his shin – in the playoffs and stayed on the field for five more plays. That was incredible.”
No doubt, that’s the warrior mentality. And, it’s been instilled from Junior, who also coached Mataio in high school as the defensive line coach at Douglas County High in Douglasville, Ga.
Junior said one of the great thrills from his coaching career was a few seasons back when his bookends were Mataio on one side and older brother Solomon.
“I wanted to coach college and I was at that level at Ole Miss,” said Junior, who was an assistant strength coach under Houston Nutt. “But moving down to high school has been fun because I’d never gotten the opportunity to coach my two sons if not for that.
“You had to learn how to give a high school player different techniques. So I adapted. But it’s been a blessing to coach this level.”
Junior said he spent time trying to get another college job once Nutt was fired at Ole Miss following the 2011 season.
“It just didn’t happen,” he said. “So I took the family and moved to American Samoa so they could get to see life on a Pacific island and know their grandfather and our family.”
That’s when he coached his sons for the first time.
“They were in middle school, just there one year,” Junior said. “We had a flag team. Mataio played cornerback. He actually does have the speed to play defensive back.
“It was a great time to be on the island and let my family see what it’s like and know their roots. I think Mataio will say it was a great year.”
Junior is delighted Mataio picked Arkansas. It made mom happy, too. Karen Soli is from tiny Sparkman in south Arkansas.
“We still go back and it’s the same size as the first time I went there with Karen,” Junior said. “It’s (population) 427 now. It wasn’t much more than when I went there the first time in the 1990s.”
Junior gets to as many Arkansas games as possible.
“It’s great to go back and see what has happened there,” he said. “It’s hardly the same place. Really, I never paid attention to the crowd, the stadium or anything else. I think as a player I was just focused on things between the lines.
“I never even knew stats from my games. I can tell you about some of the games from that great 1995 season when we won the SEC West. I recall going up 27-0 on Auburn. I recall that we didn’t allow Alabama a first down in the second half of that game in Tuscaloosa.”
The Razorbacks defeated Alabama and Auburn for the first time with last-second heroics that season. J.J. Meadors’ touchdown and Todd Latourette’s extra point with six seconds left sunk the Crimson Tide 20-19, and Junior Soli blocked a long field goal attempt as time expired after Auburn rallied to within 30-28 in Little Rock.
“I remember how much fun we had and how good we were on defense and that offense with Madre Hill,” Junior said. “He was incredible all season long. That was a highly memorable season for all of us.
“My family has one thing from that ’95 season, a copy of Hawgs Illustrated with me on the cover. My uncle has it framed on the wall at his house. (Former Arkansas football player) Eddie Bradford gave it to me and you can see his address on the label
“That was a really strong team. It was great to play for Jim Washburn, a great coach and a great family man. How he was with his family made an impression with all of us.”
Washburn reminded that Joe Lee Dunn, a Ford assistant for just one season, coordinated the 1995 defense.
“I’ve been around football for a long time and the best coach I worked with was Joe Lee Dunn,” Washburn said. “He was remarkable.
“One of the things he did was his conditioning, something he called ‘Packer Days.’ He did it everywhere he coached. It consisted of running and up downs. It was 15 minutes of up downs followed by 40-yard sprints. He got it from Vince Lombardi.”
No player ever forgets.
“No, it was stressful,” Junior said. “I’ve never seen anyone do anything close to that in my coaching career. We did that to end the morning practice in two-a-days and you had nothing left for the afternoon.
“But that made our defense. We knew we were in better shape than any team we played.”
Some wondered if Junior was in shape in ’94 when he lumbered into the Auburn end zone in 1994 with a 51-yard interception return.
“Junior had gone home to American Samoa for his grandfather’s funeral and missed a week of practice,” Washburn said. “He had eaten poi all week. His teammates caught up with him to celebrate and he started throwing up. Poi was everywhere.”
Junior said, “I did leave some Polynesian cuisine on that field.”
The aftermath of that play and Packer Days were not fun, but everything else from his Arkansas days was a blast.
“I so much enjoy going back to the games and recalling all the memories,” he said. “I’m excited for every trip.”
It’s not an easy trip.
“No, it’s not,” Junior said. “Karen, her sister and I leave straight after the high school game on Friday night. We don’t even go home because that would be the wrong direction. We drive all night for those morning kickoffs. We just hop on I-20 near the high school and head to Arkansas.”
Sometimes they arrive just in time for the Hog Walk.
“I love that,” he said. “We didn’t have that when I was a player. I love everything about going to the games.”
They ache to make that tough trip for games this fall, but know it is likely to be a strange year.
“We are getting ready for football here (at Douglas County) and are back to working out,” he said. “I am excited for our season and for Mataio’s season. I love that staff at Arkansas.
“I’ve known Sam Pittman for a long time and I think he is the kind of coach our team needs. He’s hired a good staff. As far as Sam, we got to know him well in his time at Georgia. We always went to the team camp at Georgia.
“I’ve been telling people this for the last few months, that more college teams should hire O-line coaches as the head coach. I think Mario Cristobal is a great hire at Oregon, too.”
He expects Arkansas to have some “real big boys” soon playing on the offensive line for Pittman.
“I told Mataio he should be excited because Sam will have a great line for the defensive front to compete against every day in practice,” Junior said. “I like Sam a lot.
“And, Mataio is seeing the best in the country every week in practice. I tell him the SEC West is like an NFL junior varsity team.”
Mataio has SEC West speed, if not NFL speed.
“I’ve seen him,” Washburn said. “It’s good that they played him at Arkansas last year. You don’t redshirt a player with that kind of talent. He’s only going to be there three years. He’s got that kind of speed.”
That’s the scouting report.
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