Imagine a football player.
Now, imagine him bigger. Like 6-foot-4, 347 pounds big. Now imagine he can Bench Press 225 pounds for over 40 consecutive reps.
Not impossible to picture, right? That’s a mountain of a man with silverback-like strength, but those guys exist. You’ve at least seen something akin to this make-believe prospect in real life.
But now is when your imagination might fail you. Imagine that same colossus with tremendous brute strength possessing the balance of a running back and the closing speed of a middle linebacker.
Can’t picture it? Too outlandish?
Then allow me to introduce you to Vita Vea. A top defensive tackle prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft out of the University of Washington, Vea is an urban legend come to life. Just watch this video of him playing running back at Milpitas (California) High School:
Throw some film grain on there and a little extra camera shake and it might as well be a Bigfoot sighting. Vea’s combination of overpowering size and effortless athleticism is about as rare as Sasquatch, anyways. His ability to root himself into the turf against two or even three blockers at a time without ceding an inch is astonishing, yet he can just as quickly shake free and chase down a ballcarrier. He was once clocked at 19 mph while pursuing a screen pass—an absurd feat considering the fastest foot speed clocked by a ballcarrier during Super Bowl 52 was 18.06 mph, and that was accomplished by a wide receiver. It’s traits like that which make Vea a potential top-10 talent in the eyes of many NFL evaluators.
How did Vea go about developing such a unique skillset? It’s been a cocktail of genetics, luck and hard work. His mother, fearful of injury, prevented him from playing football until he was in 6th grade. By that time, he was already too big to compete in the same leagues as his classmates. He wound up playing against 8th and 9th graders that first season, and expectedly took some licks.
“I didn’t play much because I was so young and still developing. But over time, I got better. When I got to high school is when I hit my growth spurt and really started focusing on football,” Vea said.
As a freshman at Milpitas, Vea initially played where most big kids do—on the line. But after spending some time at defensive and offensive line, his coaches noticed he was abnormally athletic for his size. While that was great for his job as a defensive end, it led them wonder how they might utilize Vea as a weapon on offense. “I started off playing O-line and D-line, then moved to tight end, then got a shot at wildcat quarterback. From there, after running the ball out of the wildcat formation, my coach gave me a shot at being running back. That’s where it took off,” Vea said. As a freshman, Vea was a contributor on a Milpitas team that went 11-2. Getting meaningful playing time as a freshman on a successful team helped Vea realize he had enormous potential—he just had to tap into it. That’s how regular workouts with a family friend named “Uncle T” began.
“The end of my freshman year, I noticed a lot of potential. A good friend of (our family), he turned into an uncle figure to us. We called him Uncle T. He took over our training,” Vea says. The workouts almost ended after their very first session—that’s how brutal the training was.
“The toughest, most painful workout I ever had with Uncle T was actually our first day with him. It was Squats. That was the first time I ever squatted heavy like that. We did a billion Squats, Hang Cleans, lot of weightlifting. My body was still developing and taking on that hardcore training—I woke up the next morning and couldn’t even get out of bed. Walking class to class, I felt like a zombie,” Vea says. “Not only me, but some other teammates who had worked out with us. I’d see them at school and we’d all be stiff and could barely move. We’d be questioning it like, ‘I don’t know if I want to go back again—that was too hard!’. But we stuck with it and it ended up turning out really good. We got really strong and really fast.”
As a sophomore, Vea totaled 92 tackles and 5 sacks en route to All-Metro honorable mention honors. That growth inspired confidence in Vea from his high school coach Kelly King, who then started using him as a running back more frequently. “Coach King gave me the opportunity to actually play and enjoy the game of football. He let me experience different positions and really learn the meaning of what it was to play and to win,” Vea says. “(He and Uncle T) really helped me grow into the player I am today.”
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When quizzed about how he managed to play running back at his size (he was the largest player on Milpitas’ roster), Vea can’t provide a definitive answer. He also played basketball growing up, which surely helped his agility and spatial awareness. He does believe gradually putting on weight over several years allowed him to preserve much of the speed and agility he possessed when he was a lighter athlete. “My athleticism comes from many different things, one being genetics. My mom, she was into sports growing up. My dad played a lot of sports, rugby and soccer. I felt like (I was) always around people who were athletic—I had a lot of cousins who were athletic,” Vea says. “I wasn’t always this big, and I was always able to move well and fast (when I was young). Then I feel like that carried over when the pounds started coming on. I feel like the speed from when I was a smaller kid or smaller person carried over.”
By the time he was a senior, Vea was a force on both sides of the ball. In his final season at Milpitas, Vea totaled 89 tackles and 8 sacks while rushing for 578 yards and 11 touchdowns. That earned him Division II first-team all-state honors as well as the De Anza League defensive MVP award. A massive player who could stalemate three linemen at once while also toting the rock for 12.3 yards per carry was basically catnip for college coaches. In rolled offers from Cal, Utah, Tennessee and Washington, among others. Washington—in part due to their strong tradition of Polynesian players—immediately drew Vea’s attention.
He knew UW was the place he wanted to be, yet academic issues prevented him from enrolling on time. Looking back, Vea largely attributes those issues to laziness—he simply didn’t realize what constituted hard work in the classroom back then. In 2013, Vea was forced to use a grayshirt year and take both night classes and online classes in order to become eligible. That translated to marathon academic days. “I had to really focus myself in the classroom,” Vea told the Pac-12 Network of his grayshirt year. “It was tiring at first, really difficult at first.”
With classes consuming his life, proper nutrition and consistent training were put on the back burner. Vea would put on nearly 100 pounds over the course of that year. “I kinda let myself go—some good weight, some bad weight. I definitely gained about 70 to 100 pounds,” Vea says. “I was mainly focused on school and trying to become eligible and finishing up my classes.”
Vea did indeed earn his eligibility, and he enrolled at UW in the fall of 2014.
He was finally on campus, but he also had a lot of work to do on his body. At the time, Vea was a gigantic slab of potential that needed serious molding. While his brute strength was impressive and his sheer mass made him difficult to move in the trenches, he had little to no muscular endurance. The decision was made for Vea to redshirt so he could prepare his body for the rigors of Pac-12 competition.
“I came into UW really not strong at all. I still had strength on the field, but I wasn’t weight room strong,” Vea says. “Everything was about building endurance in your muscles, and I didn’t have that. As time went on, I became stronger and more agile.”
The next season, Vea played in all 13 games for the Huskies. He was still incredibly raw from a technique standpoint, but his girth and athleticism proved difficult to stop. He took another step forward during the 2016 offseason, continuing to improve his body composition and speed with help from the UW strength staff. That season was when he truly emerged as a pro prospect, totaling 39 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. Perhaps even sweeter, he also earned a spot on the Academic All-Pac-12 Second Team after earning a 3.10 GPA as an anthropology major. Vita could’ve bolted for the NFL right then and there—pro scouts had already seen enough to project him as a second-round pick. But he felt he had much left to learn about football and life, and opted to return for the 2017 season. Looking back, he says it’s one of the best decision he’s ever made.
“I’m really happy I stayed one more year. I learned a lot more not only about football, but about life in general,” Vea says. This past offseason, Vea worked closely with defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe to sharpen his fundamentals and become the type of player who can take over a game. Their to-do list included playing with lower pad level, better hand placement and a greater knowledge of both offensive and defensive schemes. The two devoured hours of film, pinpointing inefficiencies or false-steps that could potentially slow Vea down.
Up to that point, Vea had relied almost entirely on a bull rush—a move where the rusher essentially attempts to steamroll the offensive lineman with sheer brute force. While it worked on occasion, Vea needed to add to his pass-rushing repertoire if he wanted to create pressure more consistently. He spent a lot of practice reps working a “hump” move that the legendary Reggie White once used to lethal effect. It entails setting up a lineman by rushing in one direction, only to wedge your hand in their armpit and toss them aside while veering in the opposite direction.
Vea also stepped up as more of a leader in the defensive line room and prided himself on bringing up the energy anytime he felt his fellow Huskies were lagging. “One thing I learned at UW is ‘fake it until you make it.’ Sometimes you gotta bring fake energy to bring the real thing up. It doesn’t make sense at first, but when everyone’s tired and everyone doesn’t want to workout, one person (can) come out and start screaming and yelling and bringing this fake energy. One at a time, people tag along, and the energy actually starts building,” Vea says. “I was kinda that guy at UW.”
Vea had also become a warrior in the weight room by that point, as he would leave UW as one of the strongest players to ever come through the program.
Armed with refined technique, a higher football IQ and his best body composition in years, Vea was a one-man wrecking crew in 2017. He won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors after totaling 44 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4 passes defended and 3.5 sacks. Those may sound like rather modest stats for a potential top-10 pick, but there’s no place in the box score for the many occasions Vea occupied two or three blockers at a time, allowing teammates to roam free.
“If you take a mountain and put it in front of a river, that’s what Vita does for us,” former UW linebacker Keishawn Bierria told the Times-Tribune. “He kind of just clogs everything up and makes guys run around him. When we know where Vita is at, we know that’s where the ball is not going.” Vea also put some devastating deployments of his hump move on film last season, prompting NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein to note a “booming hump move that can topple blockers off their base as a pass rush counter” in his scouting report.
Knowing it would be difficult for his stock to climb much higher, Vea declared for the 2018 NFL Draft after a successful 10-3 season with the Huskies. To help him prepare for the draft process and the fierce competition awaiting him at the next level, Vea turned to EXOS in Phoenix, Arizona. Moving efficiently at Vea’s size is a significant challenge, and every step counts in the all-important 40-Yard Dash. And scoring well in the 225-pound Bench Press requires massive amounts of muscular endurance, which was once a huge weakness for Vea. While going straight from the grind of the season into intense Combine training was exhausting, Vea focused on giving 100 percent on every rep. When he feels like he’s on the edge of failure, he remembers where he came from.
“Being from the Polynesian and Tonga community, hard work is one of our standards,” Vea says. “Growing up, seeing (my parents) always working hard and working multiple jobs, I feel like that carried over to me and I picked that up from them. I feel like I owe it to them to put in the work.”
EXOS’s strategic training helped Vea become a top performer at the 2018 NFL Combine. He put up 41 reps on the Bench Press, the second-most of any participant. His 5.11 40-Yard Dash at 347 pounds was also a jaw-dropping athletic feat. To put that in context, only three defensive tackles in Combine history have ever ran a 5.11 or faster while weighing 335+ pounds. He may have clocked an even quicker time in his second attempt if he hadn’t suffered a hamstring injury, but Vea’s showing proved he has the raw athleticism to wreck game plans at the next level.
His non-stop motor is another big plus in the eyes of NFL scouts, as men his size can be prone to loafing. But pop on the film and you’ll often see Vea busting his butt chasing men half his size in open space. It’s actually always been a dream of his to hawk down a running back or receiver from behind, à la Ed Reed. “Growing up, I always watched a lot of Ed Reed. He always hawked people down. So every time I’m on the field, that’s my dream play. He’s giong to be 20 yards upfield and I’m going to come up out of nowhere and catch him,” Vea says.
A defensive tackle trying to make the same plays as a Hall of Fame safety? Only Vita Vea could dream up such a goal and make it sound realistic.
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images