Practice Report: Experienced at the Nose

A new and improved Russell Tialavea showed up to fall practice raring to go from day one. With Tialavea's improved play and attitude, the Cougar defensive front at the nose tackle position looks to be in the best shape it's been in since the position was instituted as part of the 3-4 defense three years ago.

Last year around this time, Russell Tialavea was lost for the season during the team's first August scrimmage, and his future was very much in question. Since then Tialavea has undergone a lot personal change, forming into a player that his position coach Steve Kaufusi is excited to have take the field.

"Russell came out with the best attitude and the best shape he's ever been in this fall," said Kaufusi. "His attitude [and] his play [are improved], [and] he dropped some weight, which makes him a lot quicker. He's just a new man and I'm anxious to see what he can do for us this year."

Indeed, a healthy and experienced Tialavea gives Coach Kaufusi a steady and proven leader to man the front of the Cougar defense. Having such a player is something he's had to make do without the past two seasons.

"In the past we haven't had anyone coming into fall camp proven to play the position," noted Kaufusi. "We had to rely on freshmen and fortunately they panned out - we were lucky in a lot of ways - but this year we have Russell back and he's looking great so far."

Tialavea in the past was a player who was difficult to get anything out of as a reporter. While he's always been a quiet guy happy to get by with uttering the fewest amount of words possible, on Monday I was greeted by a talkative - if not animated - Russell Tialavea coming off the field.

"I'm excited to be out there," said Tialavea. "I'm thankful for the opportunity I have to play football. I love being out there. I love being out there a lot more than I did before I got hurt. I appreciate it more."

Indeed, with being away for an entire year, Tialavea was able to realize what he was missing and determined to not take it for granted if his ACL recovered. Fortunately for Tialavea and the entire defensive unit, Tialavea's ACL did heal and he's better than ever.

"It's his attitude more than anything, but he's quicker and he's hustling more," observed Kaufusi. "He brings so much to our defense just by being out there, and he's working out like he needs to and he should have a great year."

Lighter on His Feet

At a glance it's easy to note that Tialavea has lost considerable weight since spring. It's never easy for a big lineman to lose weight, but Tialavea was able to shed at least 30 pounds off his frame since January.

"It's hard, really hard," said Tialavea about his weight loss. "But it's something that had to be done. I'm just barely over 300 pounds right now and about six months ago I was about 335, so I've lost a lot and I'm feeling great."

With Tialavea's decreased weight, the plan is to get off the snap quicker and be able to generally fulfill field assignments with greater dexterity and quickness.

"It helps so much being just 30 pounds lighter," said Tialavea. "I've never felt better. I feel even better than I did before I got hurt, a lot better. I feel better, faster, quicker, and I think my attitude is better. I'm happy to be out there every day and I don't want to take any opportunity I have to play and to practice for granted."

Running Deep

Nose tackle is a position where it's all but impossible for one player to see every rep and remain effective throughout the course of a game, no matter how talented that player may be. Tialavea is going to need effective backups if the nose tackle position is to remain strong throughout the course of any game this season.

The good news is that Coach Kaufusi will have as many as three guys behind Tialavea that he's confident can get the job done in Tialavea's stead.

"We're running three and even four guys deep right now, so that's great as a coach," said Kaufusi regarding his options at nose tackle. "We have Mosese [Foketi] who is playing great, Rick Wolfley who is great against the run, Brock Richardson who can play some nose, and Tevita Hola. So we have options."

So who will be seeing the most time behind Tialavea as the season goes on? Kaufusi noted that it will likely vary from game to game.

"It's just whoever is playing well that week of practice," said Kaufusi. "It could change and probably will change a bit from game to game. We have Mosese Foketi who is really our quickest and most mobile guy, who will likely play more against offenses who pass a lot, and we have Rick Wolfley who is hard to move, so he'll likely get some more looks against running teams. We have options and it will vary from game to game."

Foketi with the Twos

If the season were to start now, Foketi would be the player getting the majority of reps behind Tialavea. Since the first practice this fall, Kaufusi has been impressed with the strides Foketi is making.

"Mosese is playing great and right now he's our second guy," said Kaufusi about Foketi. "He can move better than any of the guys I have at nose, so right now he's playing very well and hopefully he keeps it up because he can really help us this year. He‘s playing consistent and he has a better feel this year."

One player who has seen his reps decrease so far this fall is Tevita Hola, who is working his way back so that Kaufusi will consider him an option to rotate in with Tialavea.

"Tevita Hola has a lot of room to improve and he needs to get better," said Kaufusi. "He knows that and he's working to get better and hopefully he can get to a point where he can help us."

Practice Notes

-Max hall went 3-of-4 for 18 yards during his first set. Hall hit Dennis Pitta, O'Neill Chambers and Michael Reed with short passes. During the set Vic So'oto recorded a sack.

-Brendan Gaskins then went 3-of-6 for 56 yards and a touchdown in his first set. Gaskins' touchdown was thrown to Landon Jaussi from 34 yards out. Brandon Bradley broke well on the play and looked as if he'd easily knock down the pass, but didn't get enough of his hand on the pass and Jaussi retained good concentration, caught the ball, and then headed into the end zone.

-The next set got off to a very quick start as Hall hit Luke Ashworth down the sideline for a 59-yard gain. On the play Ashworth beat Brandon Howard in coverage. Hall then had his next two passes fall incomplete before hitting Kaneakau Friel in the end zone from 6 yards out. The problem with the touchdown was that Mendenhall blew the play dead as So'oto once again stormed around the end to record a sack, his second of the day.

-Gaskins then finished up by going 2-of-3 for 10 yards with completions to J.J. DiLuigi and Wayne Latu.

-Matt Ah You sat out the afternoon practice due to a bruised sternum, which isn't believed to be serious.

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