The first time Eastern Washington defensive line coach Eti Ena laid eyes on prized nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, he noticed the obvious: A 6-foot-4, 320-pound frame with an impressive motor.
Over the past four years, Tiuli, a preseason All-American, has bullied centers, guards and ballcarriers with his ferocity, size and off-the-ball speed. He’s establishing himself as one of the finest interior defensive linemen at the FCS level.
Tiuli has lost 35 pounds since last winter, he said, and is coming off the snap quicker than ever, a year after after using a medical redshirt due to a season-ending shoulder injury.
“Definitely more explosive,” said Tiuli, who prepped at Federal Way High with current EWU safety D’londo Tucker and former defensive end Albert Havili, who is currently an undrafted rookie on the Buffao Bills’ preseason roster.
But Ena, also EWU’s associate head coach, believes Tiuli thrives in an aspect few people see.
“He’s smart, and I think he’s underestimated there,” Ena said. “He knows what’s going on in the game. He understands his techniques. He’s sharp.”
As Tiuli watched from the sideline last season, he said he made it a point to still absorb everything being taught.
“I wanted to improve my football IQ. Just take it to the next level,” Tiuli said. “I always to work on speed and be faster, stronger and more explosive. But football IQ is big, too.”
A leaner, sharper and quicker Tiuli could be nightmarish for Big Sky Conference foes.
Tiuli has appeared in 36 games with 11 starts since his true freshman season in 2014. He’s tallied 77 tackles and 8.5 sacks, while often being double-teamed. The 2016 All-Big Sky Conference first-team selection is also the lone FCS nominee on the 50-player Polynesian College Football Player watchlist.
After struggling against the run last season and having trouble applying consistent pressure, the return of Tiuli is timely. Dylan Ledbetter, who stepped up in Tiuli’s absence last season, has now shifted to defensive tackle alongside the Eagles’ most imposing figure.
“Every year there’s going to be a defensive tackle that can be dominant in games, and I think he is one of those types of players,” Ena said. “We have to put him in position and keep him in position to help him maximize what he does.”
Defensive end Keenan Willians recalled a time when Tiuli lined up against a smaller long snapper in a Big Sky Conference game.
“(Tiuli) lines up in the nose, and all of a sudden a snap goes high. Because they’re worried about blocking him,” Williams said. “He changes our defense a lot when he’s playing.”