The Washington State football program’s love affair with American Samoa, as all longtime Cougars fans know, began four decades ago with a quarterback, Jack Thompson.
Recently, though, it’s been an almost exclusively defensive phenomenon.
That’s about to change.
Fred Mauigoa, a personable 315-pound sophomore who was co-valedictorian at his high school in the small Samoan village of ‘Ili’ili, will probably start at center when the Cougars open their season Sept. 2 at home against Montana State. In the past three years, nine Samoans (by birth or heritage) have started for the WSU defense, but Mauigoa will be the first during that time to start on offense.
And he’s fully aware of it.
“When they (Cougar coaches) recruited me, I wanted to be an offensive guy, because I felt more comfortable on offense, better at offensive techniques,” Mauigoa said Tuesday at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston, Idaho, where the Cougars staged their seventh preseason practice. “When I got here, I noticed there were a lot of Samoan guys on the defense, but there wasn’t really anybody on offense. I wanted to be the first.”
As the replacement for three-year starter Riley Sorenson, Mauigoa will be the least seasoned member of a highly regarded offensive line that includes Andre Dillard, Cody O’Connor, B.J. Salmonson and Cole Madison. But O-line coach Clay McGuire hardly seems worried.
“He’s a great kid, he works extremely hard and he’s got a lot of talent,” McGuire said. “If he continues to fine-tune everything, he’s got a chance to be a real good football player for us.”
Of the Cougars’ 22 offensive and defensive positions, McGuire believes the two most difficult to learn are quarterback and center. But Mauigoa understudied Sorenson last year as a true freshman and has quickly adapted to the No. 1 center’s role, despite the fact that Sorenson rarely needed a breather in 2016.
“He’s just a very bright kid,” McGuire said.
Education was a big deal in Mauigoa’s six-child family in Samoa, emphasized by both his father, a taxi driver, and his mother, the vice principal at the high school that Mauigoa attended, becoming one of five members of his class to finish with a 4.0 grade-point average. In evaluating the colleges recruiting him, he said his prime criterion was the academic support the school provides its athletes.
The ease of his transition is even more impressive in light of his relative inexperience at the center position.
“In Samoa, I mainly developed my technique playing tackle,” he said. “So I had people rushing outside – I had to move my legs quicker; my hands had to be perfect. I came here to the mainland for some camps, like Nike, and they really taught me a lot. I got better at my technique, using my hands mostly. So when they moved me to center, my feet were already faster moving laterally on the line. It was easier than I thought.”
Watching Sorenson last year provided other insights. Then, suddenly, it was time to put them to use.
“Right after Riley left the line, I knew I had to step up my game: I’m going to be one of the people that are actually playing instead of watching,” Mauigoa said. “So I kept preparing for it. I feel comfortable right now being a starter, everybody communicating. I’m comfortable with my calls. I know what I’m doing.”
There was one thing Sorenson never accomplished. Strangely, given the Cougars’ progress in recent years, they’ve never won a season opener in the five-year Mike Leach coaching tenure.
Hence another trail Mauigoa can blaze.
“I want to be the center that gets that first win,” he said.