The transition from high school to college is tough for everybody, even harder for football players and particularly challenging for those who play on the defensive line.
A defensive line recruit spent years being the biggest, baddest kid in his high school league, one whose superlative size and athleticism made him the terror of scrawny linemen and pipsqueak quarterbacks. He probably did not have to do much other than run around and beat up people.
But in college, all of a sudden he’s got to rush a passer and then reverse course when the pass is thrown. He needs to control a gap, redirect running backs and deal with offensive linemen who are three or four years older and have spent those extra years eating and lifting weights.
It’s a lot to ask.
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And it’s why Hercules Mata’afa, who was probably the team’s best defensive player by the end of 2015, did not make as much of an impact in the early part of his redshirt freshman season.
He did not collect his first college sack until the team’s third game, against Wyoming. He broke out in the next game, sacking California quarterback Jared Goff twice. By the end of the year, he was a USA Today freshman All-American.
“I was still in that transition stage from high school to collegiate level,” Mata’afa said. “I never got to test the college level until I stepped onto that field for the first game. It grew on me, so I got more competitive as the season went on, because I was able to trust myself.”
It’s a transition many of WSU’s defensive linemen will navigate in 2016. The starters are talented and experienced — Robert Barber, Daniel Ekuale and Mata’afa have all played plenty of snaps against Pac-12 competition.
But the next unit is worrisome. Because playing on the defensive line is such a grind, it’s imperative that a team has capable backups who can spell the starters without giving up big plays. And injury is always a concern.
Some players who have been around the program for a while have not developed enough in practice to give the coaches confidence in them come gametime.
“That’s one of my frustrations is we’ve given guys opportunities and I don’t know that enough have taken advantage,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.
So the Cougars might turn to some talented, if unseasoned, underclassmen who have seized the opportunities they’ve been given. One who has been a consistent playmaker is Nnamdi Oguayo, a defensive end who is likely to play this season at a scant 220 pounds.
Oguayo makes up for his lack of size with exceptional athleticism, and he is stronger than he looks. These attributes make him similar to Mata’afa, who is 255 pounds now but was able to hold up the interior of the defensive line occasionally last year when he was barely 230.
For Mata’afa and Oguayo, it’s their motor that has them in the two-deeps.
“He’s still growing,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said of Oguayo. “I’m not really interested in the size right now, but the fight and the heart, and the passion that our guys need to be attacking the football with.
“He’s in the same mode as Hercules,” Salave’a continued. “Undersized, and we may not be an overly big outfit every Saturday, but that doesn’t dictate and will not dictate the measure of our intensity and the way we attack the opponent.”