COLUMBUS — Gino Mariani had a memorable first impression of Tommy Togiai.
The football coach at Highland High School in Pocatello, Idaho, Mariani got his first glimpse of Togiai during the summer high school combine before Togiai’s freshman season, when he put up double-digit reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
That was the first of many times Mariani was impressed. And those moments kept piling up as he blossomed into an Ohio State signee.
There was the first game of Togiai’s senior year against Reno (Nev.) Galena High School, when Mariani called on Togiai to step up. Togiai posted 12 tackles — in the first half. There were countless times the then 300-pound Togiai ran sideline to sideline to track down a skill player for a big play. And of course, Mariani always thinks back to the Idaho state championship game, when Togiai ran down now-UCLA quarterback Colson Yankoff for the game-sealing tackle late in the game.
“I’ve won games with guys that can take you to championships,” Mariani said. “You say: ‘Oh, I can ride him.’ But as far as being able to ride a defensive linemen to a state championship, I’ve never heard of that before. He was one that got us to the promised land and won us a state championship.”
Togiai’s presence wasn’t known just on the football field, though. The athleticism wasn’t limited to football. He was a star in basketball, and the strength from the weight room mixed with the agility on the football field. It translated to the basketball court.
He was almost graceful on the court, on the field and even in drills.
“Just watching him on the court was amazing,” Mariani said. “He had great touch for a big guy. He understood how to use his body. And then on the football field, he’s fast. We clocked him at a 4.8 when he was running 40s, and he was 300-plus pounds at the time. We all just looked at each other like: That’s scary.
“He’s always had that agility and athleticism. Sideline to sideline was nothing for him. It was incredible to watch and fun to watch.”
Togiai’s rise to stardom and to a state championship earned him calls from some of the top coaches around the country. The in-state program Boise State was one of the first to call. The Broncos were early to the recruiting party for Togiai, but they set off a string of other schools to offer. Washington offered. Utah, USC and Oregon, too. Schools on the west coast who wanted Togiai started to add up.
Then Michigan called, triggering an Ohio State offer and a Penn State offer. Togiai’s recruitment went national.
Ohio State won the battle, maybe because of the Friday Night Lights camp where Mariani and Togiai sat down with defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who showed them drills to do throughout Togiai’s senior season at Highland. That was huge for Togiai, who picked the Buckeyes and enrolled early.
He immediately began to be developed by Johnson. He went from playing with some technique and a load of talent at high school to finding ways to add more technique to his incredible strength and size.
“He’s just one of those really strong, really fast type kids — but he was pretty savvy playing for us,” Mariani said. “He wasn’t just like: ‘I’m going to bowl over this guy, I’m going to rush here.’
“He actually read things and made plays sideline to sideline. Now, his technique has obviously gotten a lot better through what Larry has taught him.”
Togiai impressed Mariani with a spectacular showing in the weight room early in his high school career. It led him to a brilliant high school career and a chance to be a star at Ohio State.
Now the only thing left to do is dominate for the Buckeyes the way he did in that state championship game. Then, he’ll likely be tasked with dominating on Sundays in the NFL.
“He’s actually learned to play the position in a smart way, very intelligent and not with brute strength all the time,” Mariani said. “His strength is going to get him a long way, but now that he has that strength and intelligence, I think the ceiling is very, very high for him.
“I’d love to see him be a first-rounder. I’d love to see what he can do in the next two years. but he’s definitely a kid that can play on Sundays.”