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Fotuakia is one of three new faces in the Reds' starting side, with Melbourne Rebels recruit Sefa Naivalu and Waratahs pick-up Bryce Hegarty named on the wing and at fullback.
Backrower Fraser McReight and utility back Isaac Lucas could also make their Super Rugby debuts after being included on the bench for the Dunedin clash.
Jordan Petaia has edged out Chris Feauai-Sautia and Duncan Paia'aua to partner captain Samu Kerevi in the centres, while five forwards with Wallabies caps bolster their pack.
Thorn said they were "ready to rip" in after a first round bye and demanding pre-season, with Fotuakia's progress a symbol of how hard they've all worked.
"Feao is a feel-good story," Thorn said.
"He was out of shape and on the verge of giving up the game. We identified him playing club rugby last year and his transformation since has been something to admire.
"Between Brynley Abad (strength and conditioning head coach) and Cameron Lillicrap (scrum coach), Feao has dropped 16 kilos in the pre-season and his scrummaging is now very dominant."
Thorn said McReight and Lucas had forced their way into contention with their pre-season form, while he backed Hegarty and Naivalu to provide the composure needed behind young halfback Moses Sorovi and five-eighth Hamish Stewart.
The Highlanders started their season with a 30-27 defeat of the Chiefs last Friday.
"The Highlanders are a quality team," Thorn said.
"It's tough to win in Dunedin, so we'll need to be at our best and execute what we've worked on."
Reds: Bryce Hegarty, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Jordan Petaia, Samu Kerevi (capt), Sefa Naivalu, Hamish Stewart, Moses Sorovi, Caleb Timu, Liam Wright, Angus Scott-Young, Lukhan Salakia-Loto, Izack Rodda, Taniela Tupou, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Feao Fotuaika. Res: Alex Mafi, Harry Hoopert, Ruan Smith, Harry Hockings, Fraser McReight, Tate McDermott, Duncan Paia'aua, Isaac Lucas.