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Mike Iupati Returns Like He Never Left

After injury and pay cut, veteran guard impresses in preseason opener

G Mike Iupati run-blocks against the Chargers.
G Mike Iupati run-blocks against the Chargers.

It was only 10 snaps, but Mike Iupati returned to his old mauling self in the Cardinals' preseason opener against the Chargers on Saturday night.

The four-time Pro Bowl guard is somewhat of a forgotten man after missing 15 games last season due to a bone spur in his arm, but more performances like this could bring him back to the forefront. Iupati earned a stellar 93.8 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, the best of any offensive lineman in the NFL last week.

"He looks like the old Iupati, the way he's playing right now," coach Steve Wilks said.

Iupati, 31, was always intent on getting his career back to its former heights, but in the early months of 2018, it wasn't a given he would do so with the Cardinals. Iupati was still under contract for two more seasons – the remnants of a five-year, $40 million free agent deal he signed in 2015 – but advancing age and injury history made the salary untenable.

The Cardinals wanted Iupati to return in 2018 at a reduced price, and new offensive line coach Ray Brown was tasked with making the pitch.

Iupati lives in San Jose, California, so he's not always around in the offseason, but in March, he arrived for the Arizona Aloha Festival in Tempe to support his brother, Junior, who had a booth for his custom wood carving business.

Brown, who previously coached Iupati for the 49ers in 2010, knew a face-to-face meeting would be best, so he headed over to the festival. While their personalities are polar opposites – Brown the gregarious one, Iupati much quieter – the connection was rekindled immediately.

"I go over there and talk to Mike, and he lights up," Brown said. "I end up hugging him. I hadn't seen him in a couple years, since San Francisco, but I was like, 'OK, I still feel this way about this guy.'"

Iupati's feelings were mutual. While he could have chosen free agency rather than agreeing to a pay cut, Brown's presence helped clinch his decision to return to the Cardinals. On March 15, the sides agreed on a new $5 million salary for 2018.

"He's awesome, man," Iupati said. "As soon as I found out he was our offensive line coach, that was one of the reasons I wanted to stay. I didn't really care (about the other options). I wanted to stay. It's a new feeling. Everything is new, so why not stay here and make it a new start instead of going somewhere else?"

The Cardinals saved $3 million in salary after adjusting Iupati's deal, and luckily, Brown's Aloha Festival meal tab didn't count against the salary cap.

"I had to have some Hawaiian barbecue and some cold rice, which I absolutely love," Brown said. "I really immersed myself over there in regards to the eating part of it."

While Brown's appetite was satiated that day, he has a hunger for perfection on the field. Even though Iupati is at a much different place in his career than when the pair first met, Brown said he responds to instruction like he did as a rookie.

"He's been unbelievably pliable to coach," Brown said. "I always joke with the guys, 'Let the coach bend you. I'm not going to break you, but let me bend you a bit, let me shape you a little bit, let me mold you. We're all a piece of clay.' I asked him that, and he's done that. And I appreciate that."

Iupati was anything but flexible in the first preseason game, holding up like a brick wall when taking on defenders. He hopes it is the first step in a return to elite status.

"You can never be satisfied," Iupati said. "You've got to up your game."

Images from the preseason opener on Saturday evening from University of Phoenix Stadium