SEATTLE – Over an eight-year period, from 2005 through 2012, the Washington Huskies had only one player selected in the first round of the NFL draft. One. That was Jake Locker in 2011.
As the program reached its nadir, the Huskies didn’t have a single player drafted in 2008 or 2009.
The Huskies’ return to prominence under Chris Petersen has, in turn, coincided with an infusion of talent into the NFL, and that will continue Thursday night when Vita Vea is expected to be among the first dozen or so names called in the NFL draft.
In the previous three drafts, Washington has had four players selected in the first round – Danny Shelton, Marcus Peters and Shaq Thompson in 2015; and John Ross in 2017 – matching Stanford for the most first-round picks among Pac-12 teams.
Vea will be the fifth, and Petersen will be at the draft in Arlington, Texas, to support his star defensive tackle.
“We’re here to recruit and develop NFL players if we can get that done,” Petersen said last week. “That’s really, really important to us. But that’s not the only thing and that’s probably not even the first thing. But for us to be back there (at the draft), to celebrate that, that kid has worked so hard and been blessed with these tools to put to football use. I think it’s awesome. It’s awesome for the kids.”
As a junior, Vea was awarded the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12’s best defensive lineman and the league’s Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award, the first UW player so honored in 21 years.
At 347 pounds, Vea has intrigued scouts with his strength and agility, uncommon for someone so large. He runs more like a linebacker, posting a 40-yard dash time in 5.10 seconds at the NFL combine in March, doing so while tweaking his hamstring during the sprint. He said he was “not happy” with that time, but has otherwise enjoyed the buildup to the draft.
“I love all this stuff,” he said in a recent interview. “I enjoy training, I enjoy competing. That’s the reason why I play.”
Vea has traveled around the country in recent weeks meeting with NFL teams. He was back in Seattle last week for a reported dinner with the Seahawks brass.
It seems unlikely Vea would fall to the Seahawks, who hold the 18th overall pick.
Mike Mayock of the NFL Network noted that there is considerable buzz about the Oakland Raiders’ interest in Vea with the 10th pick. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King projects Vea to the Miami Dolphins at No. 11, as does Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network.
Vea hasn’t been able to avoid all the mock drafts and conjecture about his potential destination.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to tune out,” he said. “You might stumble across something or you see it on TV. When you do see it, it’s really cool to see, ‘Oh, they’re talking about me on TV.’ It’s definitely hard to tune out with social media and TV, when you’re surrounded by it.”
Vea, whose parents are from Tonga, revealed on social media earlier this month his full name: Tevita Tuli’aki’ono Tuipulotu Mosese Va’hae Fehoko Faletau Vea. That is approximately one character for every hit Vea had on Luke Falk in the Apple Cup last fall.
“Vita is one of those unique guys that, he could still come back (to UW) another year. That’s how young of a player we’re still talking about,” Petersen said. “And if he would have, he would have probably been the top pick in the draft (next year), I don’t know. I just still think he has more to him. He knows that as well.
“What an awesome situation to be in. What an awesome situation for a club to pick this guy and know he still has more to him.”