With senior Johnny White and sophomore Aubrey Pleasant both out of camp due to injuries, the true freshman has been thrown into the fire, so to speak, over the past week. Getting used to camp is tough for any freshman, let alone when one is expected to step up to practice with the second-team defense.
Defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks has had his hands full helping the Euless, Texas native adapt to the strong safety position, but Valai seems to be responding well to the pressure.
"It'll help me, I mean, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger," Valai said. "Being a freshman and playing strong safety about three or four days, it's been a little frustrating but putting the pressure on me, it can't get any worse than it is right now.
"I just have to make progress every day."
Valai played safety at Colleyville Heritage High School, but says it was more of a man-to-man setting. That said, he said after practice Monday that he was excited about playing for the different defense that UW presents.
"He's not the player he wants to be right now, but as a young player you have to come in and learn," senior safety Roderick Rogers said. "It's tough sometimes, but we need depth at that position so some young guys may have to play. We've got to make it tough on them at practice so that later on in games, it's not as tough."
Valai said that many players have helped him, but he has turned to senior Joe Stellmacher early and often to help him make the transition to the collegiate level.
"I come to him with almost every question because he's the brains of our defense," Valai said.
While nobody enjoys a coach screaming at them in practice—and Valai has received his fair share of criticism early on from Cooks—the rookie said he respects Cooks challenging him to step up.
"He's getting on me and he's pressing me hard, which I respect a lot. It's only going to make me better," Valai said. "To me, it's more mental than physical. The mental aspect is so much higher than high school football. It's like stepping from elementary to high school in a four-day period.
"It's good though, I love it."
Carter also moving around depth chart
Valai is not the only member of the defensive backfield who is making his way through a transitional period due to the depth—or lack thereof—in the unit.
Carter, who mainly played at the safety position during the first week of camp, lined up as a second-string cornerback during Monday afternoon's practice. The sophomore said he is ready and willing to step in at whatever position is necessary.
"I think I'm just going to play wherever they need me, playing at safety too in the nickel and backing up [Rogers]," Carter said. "But we needed some depth at corner, so coach asked me if I'd be willing to. I just want to help the team, so it's not a problem for me."
It is not necessarily a surprise that the Troy, Ohio native is seeing action at both positions. In face, he has played cornerback and safety at prior camps.
"I think safety will be the position that I have the most success as far as my career here," Carter said. "But I'm just working so I can be equal in both of them and help the team."
Carter will definitely bolster a unit that is somewhat thin on the depth chart. Redshirt sophomores Jack Ikegwuonu and Allen Langford have solidified their spots in the first-team, but after that the depth is up in the air.
Last week, the second-team cornerbacks were Ben Strickland and Zach Hampton—also a converted safety. Hampton was back at safety Monday when Carter was at cornerback.