In four years at WSU, Cougars nose tackle Daniel Ekuale has weathered through some tough times. But after a huge offseason, he's returned for his senior year in better shape than ever, with a whole new mindset

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The worst day of Daniel Ekuale’s four years at Washington State came last July, when the entire Cougars football team was punished after some players were accused of starting a fight at an off campus party.

Two WSU students were injured in the brawl, and in initial reports, two Samoan WSU football players were accused of being the responsible parties, though one, Robert Barber was later found not guilty by a Whitman County jury. The other, T.J. Fehoko, has since been dismissed from the team.

But way before all that played out, WSU coach Mike Leach put the entire football team through a hellish summer day of extra conditioning as penance.

Wearing thick metal chains around their necks, the team marched up and down every single flight of steps at Martin Stadium before being forced to roll their bodies down multiple lengths of the football fields.

“It was terrible. That was my worst day,” says Ekuale, now the starting nose tackle who will lead 20th-ranked WSU’s defensive line against Boise State this Saturday at Martin Stadium.

It wasn’t just the punishment that made that day so hard for Ekuale. The party fight struck off a 10-month ordeal for Ekuale’s roommate, Barber, WSU’s former nose tackle who was initially expelled by the school’s conduct board for his alleged role in the fight, then spent months fighting his case before he was finally cleared of the assault charge in court in May.

Looking back on last season, Ekuale says Barber’s ordeal affected him deeply, and in some ways, it served as the catalyst for the drastic improvements he’s made to his game this offseason.

Even though he did not participate in the fight, Ekuale was one of the many football players who attended the party last July, and he came away from the incident feeling as if he’d disappointed both his football family and his Samoan family at home in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

“It was really a letdown, not only for our team, but for our culture too, where Rob and I are from,” Ekuale said. “It was really bad, the timing and the situation. It was not a good time for us, and what we were trying to build last year.

For Ekuale, Barber’s ordeal reinforced the notion that one wrong step could potentially wipe out all that he’d spent years working toward.

He’s completely changed his mindset as to how he’s approached practice and the games, and he’s done a tremendous job being a leader on the team.”” - WSU defensive line coach Jeff Phelps

“I think it was eye opening for me, just trying to stay away from the trouble and all the chaos that goes on,” Ekuale says. “I think it was just another eye opener for the people back home too, (about) all the things going on over here. For them to know too that if their kids get a scholarship over here, just to stay out of trouble and lay low and keep your nose clean.”

So, going into his senior year, Ekuale channeled all his efforts into football and resolved to make this the best season he’s had at WSU.

One game into the season, he’s off to a good start. Ekuale had two tackles, including one for loss, against Montana State in the Cougars’ season opening win last weekend. But statistics aren’t always the best measure of a nose tackle’s performance.

“A lot of times in the battle of the trenches, he’s right in the middle of it and you don’t really see a lot of the production that he has,” says defensive line coach Jeff Phelps. “If two guys have to block him and one of the linebackers gets free, the linebacker gets credit for that play. But the defensive line really made that play. To us, that’s a victory.”

Another strong barometer of Ekuale’s performance is WSU coach Mike Leach’s uncharacteristically effusive praise for his senior nose tackle this week.

“He’s had an incredible offseason, the best offseason I’ve ever seen him have. He had a huge offseason, (with) work and focus and all those things and some leadership qualities too, and (Ekuale), I thought, played one of the very best games of our entire defense this last game,” Leach said.

It’s a lofty compliment from a coach who’s usually reserved in his praise for players. But, says Phelps, it’s well-deserved.

“I saw Daniel make some plays that – in talking with the staff – he possibly didn’t make last year,” said Phelps, who joined the Cougars in January to replace Joe Salave’a, after the latter left for Oregon. “He was more active, he looked healthy, quick and strong, and he was disrupting plays.

“He’s completely changed his mindset as to how he’s approached practice and the games, and he’s done a tremendous job being a leader on the team.”

Growing pains

Success didn’t come easily to Ekuale through his first few years in Pullman.

During his freshman year, Ekuale’s greatest battles took place in the classroom, where he struggled to keep up with lessons taught in English – a language he says he wasn’t fluent in until his sophomore year of college.

“When I first got here, I was not comfortable with English and stuff because it’s not my first language. It was really hard, really complicated for me to speak English over here. School was really hard for me,” said Ekuale, who will graduate in December with a criminal justice degree.

At Nuuuli Technical High School in Samoa, classes were taught in both Samoan and English, Ekuale said. But outside of school, he never spoke English until he got to WSU, defaulting instead to his native Samoan when around friends and family back home.

In Pullman in 2013, Ekuale found himself suddenly immersed in an all-English world. Having Samoan teammates like Barber and Destiny Vaeao, and a Samoan position coach in Salave’a, helped ease his transition. But his struggles with the language, coupled with being far away from home and having to learn a new defensive scheme, made freshman year more challenging for Ekuale than most.

He’s had an incredible offseason, the best offseason I’ve ever seen him have.” - WSU coach Mike Leach

He also discovered an unfortunate tendency in himself: Whenever he got fatigued on the field, his brain would switch off and he’d become more consumed with regulating his breathing instead of concentrating on the play.

That, combined with how he shuffled through three different positions on the defensive line over his first four years, made it difficult for Ekuale to find his niche on the field.

Yet, despite his struggles, Ekuale’s raw talent stood out enough that he played 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2014, and has since appeared in every game over the last two seasons at WSU, making 10 starts.

Salave’a’s departure for Oregon this winter came as another big blow because the coach had been a father figure and mentor to Ekuale and many other Samoan players on the team.

“It was really hard the day I found out about it. It was really sad, that day,” Ekuale says, emphasizing that he has no hard feelings toward Salave’a, because he understands that “at some point in life, you’ve gotta do what you gotta do for the family.”

“I’m happy for him,” Ekuale says. “But we’ll look forward to playing Oregon this year.”

A new outlook

Ekuale moved to nose tackle full-time this spring to fill the void created by Barber’s graduation in December.

His play was average at first, and after the Cougars’ first spring scrimmage, Phelps sought out Ekuale for a chat.

“The first spring scrimmage we had, he didn’t have much production at all,” Phelps said. “That’s what we talked about, and you can tell it really hit home for him. Then, he came out in the second scrimmage and scored a lot of production points.”

After his talk with Phelps, Ekuale really re-evaluated himself.

“I felt like, at some point, I had to stop what I was doing because I was thinking, ‘I’m not doing anything, I’m not making progress for the team, not making a commitment to my teammates,’” Ekuale said. “I was thinking, ‘I need to step up and be a leader and show it in my play.”

Since then, Ekuale’s stock has been on an upward trajectory.

To minimize his tendency to slip into mental lapses when he’s fatigued, Ekuale did a lot of extra conditioning by himself this offseason, regularly running stadium stairs or sprints. He was also conscientious about building his body, putting on more than 15 pounds of good weight over the summer.

Now at a robust 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, the senior tackle has transformed his physique, says defensive coordinator Alex Grinch

“He’s taken that next step going into his senior year, understanding that this is it for him,” Grinch said.

The transformation wasn’t just physical. Ekuale adopted an entirely new mindset going into this season. For one, he’s relaxed a bit and doesn’t put as much pressure on himself.

“I think he had the mindset that he had to make every play, and it ultimately forced him not to make a lot of plays. He just wasn’t very productive,” Phelps said. “When you do too much, you find yourself in bad positions. I told him that ultimately, that’s what he needed to get better at.

“He really took pride in that and worked his butt off as far as getting an understanding of his body and the details and fundamentals that would help him finish the play.”

Also, the old Ekuale, Leach says, was inconsistent, and often took too long to rebound from disappointment or a bad game.

The new Ekuale has truly learned – to borrow from one of Leach’s catchphrases – to play the next play, and this shortened memory has brought a level of consistency he never had before.

“The game of football, sometimes you get emotional and it gets to you if you don’t respond the right way,” Ekuale said. “You just have to have the mindset that you will come to practice and get better and move forward. I’m just trying to be the best I can be.

“This is my last year. I’ve got to make it count. There’s no more excuses. All I’ve gotta do is put it all on the line and help this team win.”