MANOA, Hawaii -- Gaetano DeMattei felt out of place as a college freshman.

But his angst had little to do with relocating from northern California to Hawaii.

A product of the storied De La Salle program in high school, DeMattei wasn't thinking about pursuing college football when he first enrolled at the University of Hawaii.

But the void was undeniable.

"I took two years off from football and it was like I wasn't doing what I supposed to be doing," DeMattei said.

DeMattei transferred to a junior college for a semester to get back into the game with the intention of walking on with the Rainbow Warriors upon returning to Manoa.

A junior in eligibility, DeMattei earned a roster spot as a cornerback in the spring and has worked his way up the depth chart in training camp, rotating in with the top units at nickelback during Wednesday morning's practice.

"Getting a lot of reps in the spring at corner really helped," DeMattei said. "It's a little bit easier because you're not out there so far on an island. You have a lot more help, so a lot of it is knowing where you have help, counting on everyone else to be there and doing your job."

When he joined the program in the spring, UH defensive backs coach Daronte' Jones said DeMattei, listed at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, "was kind of a surprise to us all. (He) caught our eye in terms of being just real competitive."

DeMattei ended the spring by posting a team-high six tackles and breaking up a pass in the Warrior Bowl scrimmage and is pushing for playing time in the secondary as the season opener against Washington approaches.

"He's what I call, for the most part, a one-rep guy," Jones said of DeMattei's penchant for picking up concepts. "Mentally he doesn't make too many mistakes. He's raw, so it's just fine-tuning most of his technique, some alignment stuff. ... He has a good feel for the game. Certain guys just are more instinctive than others."

I took two years off from football and it was like I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing.
-- Gaetano DeMattei
DeMattei's knack for being in the right place traces back to his career at De La Salle, where he played for hall of fame coach Bob Ladouceur.

"I could be on the other side of the field and if I did something wrong he'd see it," DeMattei said. "That attention to detail was a really big thing. ... It makes the transition (to college) a lot easier. A lot of the things they preach here they preached there."

The Spartans' 151-game winning streak and the events covered in the 2003 book and upcoming movie "When The Game Stands Tall" were already part of De La Salle lore when DeMattei reached high school.

He sought admission to the school although he lived more than an hour away from the Concord, Calif., campus and contributed to the program's legacy as a running back and defensive back. The Spartans went 27-2 in his two varsity seasons, including a 14-0 run in 2010 when the Spartans were declared national champions.

But football wasn't part of his outlook when he first arrived at UH.

"My plan wasn't to play football," he said. "When I wasn't playing I was looking out here (at the practice field) every day, watching them play, going to all the games and it was just something I wanted to do."

DeMattei transferred to Diablo Valley College for a semester to get back into the flow of football and stuck to his vow to return to UH.

"I had been here and this is where I wanted to play," he said "I wanted to finish school here."

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