When Hercules Mata'afa was deciding where to play college football, he narrowed a short list of options down to two schools.
One had Joe Salave'a on its staff, the other didn’t. It was almost that easy for the defensive lineman from Lahainaluna High School in Hawaii.
“When I got here, I didn’t have a lot of offers,” Mata'afa said Tuesday. “I was stuck between two schools for awhile and then coach Joe came in and recruited me and I felt comfortable with him, so I took this shot with Wazzu. We'll all just have that bond because he’s the one that recruited me and got me here.”
Salave'a’s gift to WSU is the one that keeps on giving.
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Mata'afa, now a redshirt junior, would have a place on every roster in the Pac-12 Conference if he wanted it. WSU’s starting defensive tackle has 4.5 sacks in five games and leads the country in quarterback pressures by an interior lineman with 19, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He’s the best defensive player we’ve seen to date,” USC coach Clay Helton said on Tuesday, four days after Mata'afa and the Cougars upset the fifth-ranked Trojans 30-27.
Mata'afa’s aggression up front is leaving opposing offenses with two options these days – neither of them particularly ideal: double him up and give one of Mata'afa’s teammates a free lane to the quarterback, or take your chances with a single offensive lineman and hope that he can hold his ground long enough for the quarterback to get rid of the football. Five teams have played the 11th-ranked Cougars this season. None have come up with a good blueprint for No. 50.
Salave'a, now the defensive line coach at Oregon, spotted a gem nobody else did, then groomed him into one of conference’s most dynamic pass-rushers.
“Probably the reason a lot of teams didn’t pursue the kid, it takes patience,” Salave'a told Oregon media during a group interview this week. “For me, it’s not a difficult decision to go after that kid and knowing he’s going to be a good one. So it was just a matter of getting him over to Washington State and groom him and put him in a position to let him loose. And that’s what you’re seeing from Herc.”
Maybe someday Salave'a will marvel at all of that and pat himself on the back, but this week he’s busy tipping off Oregon’s offensive coaches about Mata'afa and the rest of the Cougars – not to mention getting his own group right to face Luke Falk and the WSU Air Raid Saturday at 5 p.m. in Eugene.
Before the Cougars became the nation’s 11th-ranked team, before the Ducks lost their starting quarterback for an extended period of time and before UO was named a two-point favorite despite both of those things, Salave'a’s WSU reunion was always going to be a major storyline this week.
“It'll be exciting to go against an old coach,” Mata'afa said.
Salave'a was hardly just a coach for Mata'afa and many of the other Polynesian-born players on WSU’s roster. Many wouldn’t have taken a chance on playing college football in a rural college town on the Idaho border had it not been for Salave'a, who gave the Polynesians some semblance of home while they were playing and studying thousands of miles from their families.
The Ducks are cashing in on Salvea'a’s recruiting ties, but that isn’t the first, second or third reason Taggart tapped the former NFL D-lineman to join his staff.
“I think – excuse my language – I think he’s a damn good coach,” Taggart said Tuesday, “and a really good person and he’s easy to get along with, he can relate to everybody and I think what he’s done with our D-line is first and foremost, he’s shown them that he truly does care about him and love him for who they are.”
And how about his imprint on the field? Take a gander at the Pac-12’s sacks leaderboard. The Ducks rank first, with 20. Right behind them are the Cougars, with 17.
Salave'a said he’s proud of what he helped construct in Pullman – the Cougars now rank No. 11 nationally in total defense – even if he knows Mata'afa and company could make Saturday’s game an uncomfortable one for the Ducks.
“That was four, five years in the making,” he said, “and those guys are playing well, they’re playing really well.”