Pitoitua: A natural, now an NFL prospect

PULLMAN -- Mike Walker says he always believed defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua was a good enough player to make it in the National Football League. Walker only feared that Pitoitua was not going to be a good enough person to make it out of Washington State.

"He's developed tremendously on and off the field," said Walker, WSU's longtime defensive line coach and a former Cougar standout. "His first two years, he was kind of out there. He was following around some wrong people.

"He straightened up his act. He's taking care of business off the field and on the field. He's turned into a real student-athlete."

The 6-foot-8, 290-pound Ropati Pitoitua might be the top NFL prospect on the Cougars. Although he never played football until his junior year at Clover Park High School and never redshirted at WSU, only a series of injuries prevented him from starting all or most of his first three college seasons.

"I think this is going to be the year he really breaks out," Walker said.

The massive Pitoitua, a Samoa native who became a U.S. citizen last year, can stuff the run with his massive body or use his athleticism to cause mayhem on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Pitoitua set career highs last season with nine games played (all starts), 37 total tackles, 7 tackles for loss and 2 quarterback sacks.

The Cougars have also begun experimenting with Pitoitua at defensive end. The big tackle said he found it "kind of shocking" when coaches first suggested he shift outside, but he batted down two consecutive passes in his first practice at end.

"I'm having fun," said Pitoitua, a criminal justice major with an eye on a career as a social worker when he's done with football. "It's a whole lot of finesse (compared to tackle). I played defensive end in high school my first year, then moved down to defensive tackle."

Clover Park coaches saw the huge man-child roaming the halls and begged him to turn out for football, basketball and track. Pitoitua resisted at first, but he finally tried basketball as a sophomore and football as a junior.

"I wasn't interested," he said. "It wasn't my thing. School (was). I wasn't into sports."

In just his second year of football, Pitoitua was named the Seamount League Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. The Cougars came rushing with scholarship in hand, but Walker was initially underwhelmed by Pitoitua once he arrived in Pullman.

"His first two years playing, he really didn't know how serious it was," Walker said.

Now, with NFL scouts lurking all about, Walker says Pitoitua realizes what's at stake. Walker says Pitoitua lacks the quickness needed to play defensive end in the NFL, but the coach said scouts may be intrigued by what they see of Pitoitua if he lines up at end on occasion for the Cougars.

"That might really open some eyes," Walker said. "He might get more attention when he's not getting double-teamed."

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