PULLMAN – The grunt work done by the largest, slowest and sweatiest players on a football field generally isn’t what inspires hundreds of thousands of fans to flip on their television sets every Saturday in the fall.
Life isn’t pretty in the trenches, but the combat happening there is often more paramount to a team’s success than any other facet of the game. And according to Washington State coach Mike Leach, the warfare up front between the big guys might actually be more viewer friendly than you think.
“If practice is boring, just go watch one-on-one O-line/D-line,” Leach said last month while appearing on Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take podcast. “Because it’ll be all intense and it’ll be like stock cars, except they’re the monster trucks crashing into each other.”
Leach should know. A few of the Pac-12’s best engines are parked in his own backyard – one on offense, one on defense – and their collisions on the practice field are almost always high-wattage affairs that give plenty of credence to the old theory that iron sharpens iron.
On the offensive line, it’s Cody O’Connell – a mountain of a left guard who, at 6-foot-9, 370 pounds, is wider than every lineman on the football team and taller than nearly every post on the basketball team. On the other side of the line, it’s Hercules Mata’afa – a defensive tackle who, according to Leach, has “inordinate strength” that counterbalances his smallish 6-2, 252-pound frame.
One is a unanimous All-American. The other is a former Freshman All-American. One is nicknamed ‘The Continent.’ The other simply goes by Hercules, because why use anything else? O’Connell is coming off a junior season that saw him named a finalist for the Outland Trophy. Mata’afa’s career at WSU has been sufficiently decorated, too, and the redshirt junior enters the season on four separate watch lists.
So what happens when these two spar on the practice fields in Pullman?
“It’s a heckuva matchup,” Leach said.
And naturally, it’s the top attraction when Clay McGuire’s offensive line and Jeff Phelps’ defensive line gather for their daily one-on-one duels.
Usually, the drill pits the best against the best – the first-string offensive line against the starters on the defensive line. And most often, Mata’fa and nose tackle Daniel Ekuale are the ones tangling with the All-American.
“I think they fight to see who can get a chance to go up against Cody,” Phelps joked.
It’s not far from the truth.
“Cody’s an ideal NFL prototype player,” Mata’afa said. “Big, long, strong, so I always like going against him and trying to do my best to win that battle because I know to get work against someone of his caliber will help me in the long run.”
When Mata’afa gets his crack at the big man, his best chance is to beat O’Connell inside or around the edge with his speed. Pound-for-pound, Mata’afa might be the strongest player on the Cougar roster – at least in terms of his “field strength” Leach says – but his deficit in size borders around 120 pounds, so muscling up the giant on the other side of the ball usually doesn’t get him anywhere.
“If we run down the middle of him, that’s what the offensive lineman wants,” said Phelps, the first-year Cougar assistant who came to WSU this spring from Minnesota. “He can anchor down in there just like he does in the squat rack and he can ultimately squat us or press us away from the launch point.”
On the second day of fall camp, Mata’afa made an attempt at going through his opponent, rather than around him and was violently shoved to the turf. On the second attempt, the D-tackle engaged O’Connell, then made a quick burst right to dart around the left guard.
McGuire and Phelps don’t necessarily peg winners or losers in the one-on-one drills. They either bring in a scout team quarterback to sit behind the offensive line, or imitate with a towel. Defensive players aim to tap the quarterback or scoop up a towel. The offensive linemen hope to hold off their opponent long enough to hear a whistle, which is blown to signal the end of the play.
When Mata’afa can swing around O’Connell’s left side and take a banana route to the towel, or the QB, he often gets there in time.
“He typically gives you the same couple moves, then he switches it up on you a little bit,” O’Connell said. “But it’s one of those, you’re not always going to get the same things but sometimes, some players have that specific move they like. He’s got a couple that he loves and he’s pretty good at it.”
And Mata’afa pulls out a pretty sweet spin move from time to time, often catching the offensive player flat on his feet.
“Oh god, that’s a good one,” O’Connell laughed. “That’s a good one.”
Early on, O’Connell was able to use his long tree trunk arms to hold his competitor off. But Mata’fa has since found ways to counter – he also uses his hands efficiently – and the battles are usually about 50-50 these days.
“Hercules is one of the better football players I’ve ever seen and one, he’s probably the toughest kid I’ve been around,” McGuire, WSU’s offensive line coach, noted. “Two, he has incredible body leverage and strength. It’s one of those things, you better use great technique. I don’t care who you are. It’s a great challenge for us, it’s good to work against him and guys like that every single day.”
And the best thing about it? Both players wear crimson on Saturdays.