But those days of depending on unproven freshmen at the position appear to be over. The Cougars will enter the 2008 season with three players with prior experience at the position, and some added junior college talent to go along with that experience.
The two players that have experience and will be competing this spring at the nose tackle position include Rick Wolfley and Mosese Foketi. Both players weren't looked upon as likely contributors to the position back in 2006, but both came on to add significantly to the strength of the middle of the Cougar defense during last season.
Rick Wolfley was lost in the shuffle at offensive guard before Cougar coaches switched him over to defense last year to help supplement the loss of Tialavea for the year. Wolfley responded with enthusiasm and with some pretty decent play at the position, which he's more than happy to be playing.
Wolfley does the main thing nose tackles are asked to do well: he doesn't allow the opposition to push him around. He holds the middle well, helping to create gaps for the Cougar linebackers to fill. Wolfley's biggest struggle has been losing weight. We'll be anxious to see what shape he comes in at in a couple of weeks.
Mosese Foketi meanwhile came on later in the year and was able to spell Manumaleuna and Wolfley with some effectiveness when they needed breathers. Foketi didn't look like a good option early in the year, but kept working hard to earn a spot in the rotation as the season came to a close.
Foketi's strength is pass rushing, while Wolfley's is against the run. We'll be watching closely this spring to see how Foketi has improved against the run, and conversely how Wolfley has improved in his pass rush. While many won't be penciling in either Woflely or Foketi as starters, both are almost certainly ready and able to contribute to the regular NT rotation.
Tialavea on the Mend
The most Russell Tialavea will be doing this spring is light non-contact drills. We don't look for Tialavea to do much of anything this spring, but word is that he's well ahead of schedule in rehabbing his torn ACL and should be ready to go in the fall.
If Tialavea regains his form in time for fall, he'll most likely be getting the bulk of playing time during the 2008 season. Tialavea was a monster during 2006 and his injury was considered by many to be devastating to the Cougar defense in 2007 before Manumaleuna came on in the fall.
After many years of having to make do with unproven high school talent that came in during fall practices, the Cougars finally will have a midyear junior college transfer to compete during spring for the nose tackle position. Tevita Hola is enrolled and raring to go to earn his spot this spring.
Hola comes in with impressive credentials and could very well end up on top of the rotation coming out of spring practices. Look for Wolfley and Foketi to get the reps with the 1s and the 2s initially, but look for Hola to make some serious movement up the depth chart as practices go on.
Some intriguing options at the position will be joining the team this coming fall in Bernard Afutiti and Solomone Kafu. What is nice is that coaches won't have to rely on them to save the position this time around.
Afutiti is projected by most to play defensive end, but he certainly has the ability to play nose tackle. Afutiti played mostly on the inside during his junior college years, and most certainly will be looked at as someone who can rush effectively from the NT position on passing downs.
Kafu was an under-the-radar recruit who could prove to be a complete steal. Unlike most incoming freshmen who play NT, Kafu will almost assuredly be afforded a redshirt year.
Kyle Luekenga may or may not be able to rejoin the team come spring after his suspension from the team. If he is able to compete, he'll add to the depth at nose tackle and quite possibly at defensive end.
Overall, the prospects at nose tackle look better heading into 2008 than they have at any time since the team switched to their current 3-4 defensive system. The level of talent and overall depth has never been higher. Nose tackle will most certainly be a position of strength for the Cougars during the 2008 season.