PULLMAN – Ioane Gauta is making a name for himself at Washington State, even if no one on campus seems to know how to pronounce it.
Gauta’s first and last names (pronounced U-WAHN-nee NOW-tuh) sound nothing like the spellings would indicate. No wonder most people just call the big nose tackle by his nickname, “Junior.”
Gauta is hard to miss on the football field with his long, black hair flowing from beneath the back of his helmet. More important, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound junior college transfer is hard to miss because of his fine play.
“He’s done a real good job,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “Ahead of schedule. (He has) adapted quickly.
“Like anybody, it took a little bit of (fall) camp to get used to things, but he has been a very pleasant surprise.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Breske agrees with everything his boss said about Gauta’s quick start – except the “surprise” part.
“We expected it,” Breske said.
Gauta’s rugged presence in the middle has helped the Cougars climb to 30th in the nation in rushing defense (107.1 yards per game). The inconsistent Cougars rank 96th in total defense (451.7), but they’ve allowed just one rushing touchdown. That ties for 11th nationally going into Saturday’s Pacific-12 Conference opener with Colorado (1 p.m., FX).
“My job, basically, is to take two guys,” Gauta said. “Take them out of the picture so our linebackers can make plays.”
Still, Gauta has recorded 11 tackles (five solo) in three games, including two tackles for losses.
“I’ve always been a team person,” Gauta said. “Part of it is with my faith, my Christian background.
“I love helping people. As big as I am and as mean as I look, I can be the nicest guy.”
Leach said he appreciates Gauta’s selfless attitude, “and he brings enough enthusiasm out there that he kind of ignites the other kids around him.”
Added Breske: “He’s got a passion for the game. He loves football.”
Gauta is surprisingly athletic for his size. He might be the only college nose tackle in the country who played quarterback in high school, albeit on the freshman team.
“We went undefeated,” Gauta said proudly. “I threw a couple touchdown passes, rushed for one.
“We had a great team. I was skinny at that time. I was about 6-1, 225.”
The “skinny” freshman was ineligible for sports as a sophomore after transferring from Garden Grove High School to Valencia High, both in California. He lettered two years in football, basketball, track and volleyball (“I love volleyball!”) at Valencia.
Gauta drew little recruiting interest in high school, possibly because of poor grades that made him academically ineligible for Football Bowl Subdivision schools. A liberal studies major, Gauta said he is grateful for the academic tutoring he received while playing two years near home at Fullerton College.
Born in Honolulu, Gauta and his family moved from Hawaii to Anaheim, Calif., when he was in grade school. Hawaii recruited him out of high school and again in junior college, but he said Kansas State, Colorado State and WSU were the only schools that offered him scholarships after last season.
“I have no idea (why more schools weren’t interested),” Breske said.
Breske certainly knows why the Cougars “recruited the heck out of” Gauta.
“With the move to the 3-4 defense, we needed a bigger nose guard to anchor that ‘A’ gap,” Breske said. “He’s got good quickness. He’s got good ‘quick-twitch’ off the ball.”
Gauta loves to fly around the field, and he loves letting all that hair fly out of his helmet.
“It’s part of my (Samoan) culture, having long hair,” he said with one of his frequent smiles. “Guess it’s a sense of power.”