Hercules Mata'afa ranks sixth nationally in tackles for loss and has become the guy opponents have to game plan against. His secret? The wrestling skills he picked up during a childhood spent fighting his siblings and national-caliber wrestlers.
The secret is out.
Hercules Mata’afa is no longer Washington State’s covert pass rushing weapon. Not after his red-hot start to the year.
As the No. 11 Cougars (5-0) travel to Eugene to play Oregon (4-1) this weekend, Mata’afa tops the Pac-12 with 10 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks, and ranks sixth nationally in TFLs.
According to Pro Football Focus, Mata’afa leads all interior defenders nationally with 19 quarterback pressures through five games, and as USC coach Clay Helton will attest, no offensive coordinator can afford to take his eyes off Mata’afa.
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“He’s one of the first kids we’ve had (to face) this year where you actually had to game plan against and know where he was at all times,” said Helton, whose Trojans lost 30-27 to WSU last Friday. “He does a great job of what we call getting skinny in gaps, getting his pads under yours and finding ways to get in the backfield. It doesn’t matter if he’s on defense or special teams. He was a nightmare for us on field goal protection.
“Credit to the kid – as far as a defender goes, he’s the best one we’ve seen to date. I was extremely impressed with him. He lived up to his potential on all the accolades that he’s getting.”
The Ducks are rewinding film clips and taking notes.
“He’s a big-time player,” says Oregon coach Willie Taggart. “He’s what we call a war daddy. You turn on the film, you see it. He can do a lot of different things for you, and he’s really helping their team.”
This weekend’s game in Eugene is particularly special to Mata’afa and many of his defensive line-mates because their former position coach, Joe Salave’a, will be on the opposite sideline.
Salave’a left WSU in January to become the Ducks’ defensive line coach, and the move initially came as a huge shock to his linemen, many of whom, like Mata’afa, he had recruited to Pullman.
Everyone has since moved on. Mata’afa says he doesn’t begrudge Salave’a for leaving and adds that he and Salave’a still exchange the occasional text message to wish each other luck before games.
“It’ll be great seeing him,” said Mata’afa, a native of Lahaina, Hawaii. “It’s always great seeing him just because of what he’s done for our defensive line. He always made sure we had passion for this game and took nothing for granted out on the field. He’s a motivating coach.”
Salave’a helped Mata’afa kick start his career in Pullman, now, his replacement, Jeff Phelps, has been charged with guiding the redshirt junior to a strong finish.
Mata’afa wasn’t a complete unknown entering this season. In 2015, he recorded 11 tackles-for-loss as a redshirt-freshman, was named a USA Today Freshman All-American, and earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors.
But due to depth concerns in 2016, Mata’afa shuffled around all three defensive line positions, and that lack of continuity contributed to a slight drop in his pass-rushing production as a sophomore – he had five sacks, after notching seven the year before.
This season, however, Mata’afa has put it all together.
“He’s always been quick and athletic, but he’s gotten stronger and we’ve moved him to a better location to put him in position to have success on the field,” Phelps said.
Mata’afa worked to lower his pad level, and that improved technique combined with his newfound home at defensive tackle has helped him play faster.
“My sophomore year, I was still young,” Mata’afa said. “But I’m way more comfortable with the scheme and defense this year, and I think that goes for everybody.”
At 6-foot-2, 252-pounds, Mata’afa is considered undersized for a defensive tackle, but is deceptively strong for his size.
What sets Mata’afa apart from everyone else is his unique understanding of leverage and angles, WSU coach Mike Leach said.
“When he really gets ahold of a guy or moves a guy, he can go in there unobstructed,” Leach said. “Instead of grazing shots, he can go in there and get unobstructed shots.”
For that, Mata’afa has his wrestling background to thank. He wrestled from kindergarten all the way to his junior year of high school, when he decided to focus his efforts on football.
But, “for a long time, I never lost until high school,” Mata’afa said. “And the only time I lost was in the state finals match. The kid I lost to went to Iowa State, and he’s pretty good.”
That would be Dane Pestano, who wrestled his way to the NCAA championship tournament last year as a junior. Mata’afa lost to Pestano in the Hawaii state finals championship bout two years in a row.
Those wrestling skills caught Salave’a’s eye when he was recruiting Mata’afa, and they give Mata’afa an edge every time the ball is snapped, Phelps said.
Nationally renowned offensive line coach Sam Pittman – now at Georgia – once gave Phelps a valuable piece of advice: “He told me one time that if you can find the state champion wrestlers, and if they fit what you do, you want to recruit them,” Phelps said. “They understand leverage and using their hands and they’re tough guys.”
All those things are true for Mata’afa. He actually got a wrestling scholarship offer – to Midlands University in Nebraska – before he ever got any football offers, and for a while, considered the idea of wrestling in college.
His extensive wrestling experience, he says, definitely makes him a better football player.
“I think football correlates with wrestling a lot. Pad level is key, hand movement is key, footwork is key,” Mata’afa said. “It kinda goes hand-in-hand, especially for a defensive lineman.”
To this day, Mata’afa points to a high school wrestling drill as one of the hardest workouts he’s ever been put through.
“We used to get in our stances and stay in stance for five minutes and walk around,” Mata’afa said. “It’s the most grueling drill to do. You’re in a low position, walking around and hand fighting with teammates.”
The first thing that jumps out when you watch Mata’afa’s old wrestling videos is how slippery he was on the mat. He could seemingly worm his way out of any attempted takedown, then turn around and neutralize his opponent – often with one of his two favorite moves, the headlock or the cross-face cradle.
He’s still slippery on the football field, just in a slightly different way.
“Hercules’ background in wrestling allows him to have that second nature understanding of leverage and tipping points,” Phelps said. “A lot of guys, if they get in a bad position, they fall to the ground. He just keeps maneuvering and working, and all of a sudden he breaks through.”
But Mata’afa doesn’t need to out-maneuver you if he can just beat you off the snap. That happens frequently too.
“He has a great get-off. When the ball moves, he’s got that quick-twitch muscle that all defensive line coaches say they want in their guys,” Phelps said. “He gets off the ball fast, and he’s playing with lower pad level and it makes it tougher for offensive linemen to cover him up.”
Perhaps Pac-12 offensive linemen looking for an edge against Mata’afa should take pointers from his younger sister, Lalalei, who’s one of the few people to ever pin him down.
Actually, she almost drowned him. (By accident of course.)
The rowdy Mata’afa brood – he has six siblings – was wrestling on the beach one day when things got out of hand.
“One of my sisters held me under the water a little too long,” Mata’afa said. “I was 12. She was nine. We’d all ganged up on each other, and I was egging her on the whole day until she reached her breaking point.”
The Cougars are glad he’s still alive. The Ducks hope their offensive line can stop him from getting to their quarterback.