PULLMAN — On consecutive days, the two players jockeying for Washington State’s starting nose tackle position paid visits to reporters for post-practice group interviews.
There may not be two players on WSU’s 100-plus man roster who better represent the varying cultural backgrounds and athletic upbringings on a college football team than Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei and Lamonte McDougle.
And beyond those things, they both bring something different to the position vacated by Taylor Comfort, the former walk-on who became a revelation for WSU in 2018, starting 13 games on a defensive line that was debatably the most productive and effective in the Pac-12 Conference, generating a league-leading 38 sacks.
Now it’s just a matter of what the Cougars want.
Aiolupotea-Pei has been running with the first defensive unit since WSU camp started approximately two weeks ago, and he held that spot through spring camp, but McDougle mixes in from time to time and has kept on his teammate’s heels.
Aiolupotea-Pei and McDougle are also getting push from redshirt sophomores Dallas Hobbs and Jesus Echevarria, who round out one of the deepest nose tackle groups the Cougars have had under Mike Leach.
“That’ll be every week for the next 13 weeks, whoever practices best and whoever’s most productive in the game will get the start the next week,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “… Competition, that’ll make us a lot better. I believe in that, because of the competition we have down inside.”
Aiolupotea-Pei is a 6-foot-3, 270-pound redshirt junior from New Zealand whose first introduction to the sport came long after a few of McDougle’s relatives wrapped up their playing careers in the NFL.
While Aiolupotea-Pei was still learning ground rules on the other side of the globe, the 6-foot, 291-pound McDougle was picking up interest on the recruiting trail from schools in every Power Five conference as a three-star prospect from Pompano Beach, Florida.
Aiolupotea-Pei was refining his technique at Riverside Community College two seasons ago, hoping an FBS program was prepared to take a gamble on the former rugby/volleyball player. Meanwhile, McDougle was outdueling three upperclassmen for the starting nose tackle spot at West Virginia — which he did successfully — en route to ESPN Freshman All-American honors.
Their résumés might as well be written in sand at this point, though — no different than the WSU’s ever-fluctuating depth chart.
“Even during season, you can’t get complacent, because if you have a bad day it’ll be next man up,” Aiolupotea-Pei said.
McDougle’s no stranger to good, healthy competition. When he arrived in Morgantown, West Virginia, two years ago, the Mountaineers had three redshirt seniors and only one other underclassman vying for the nose tackle job. McDougle rose to the top and was one of the Big 12’s most productive defensive linemen, recording 23 tackles, four tackles-for-loss and two sacks.
“It’s been like that for me since my freshman year, competing with older guys,” he said. “It definitely pushes me to play harder. … I had to fight from day one and I wasn’t an early enrollee guy either, so I had to prove that I could play.”
The Cougars have to start one, but they’ll lean on both.
McDougle’s low center of gravity and exceptional strength make him an elite run-stopper. Aiolupotea-Pei is a taller presence on the line of scrimmage, which makes the former volleyball player more apt to get his hands into the passing lanes and cause deflections.
“We complement each other and we’re working some packages where it’s like the both of us in there,” McDougle said. “But obviously I want to be the starter and he pushes me every day to perform at my best and I push him. So it’s good. I like the competition.”
As far as where it stands? Still nose to nose, if you may.
Defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said the two players were at a stalemate prior to the team’s initial scrimmage, which he indicated would be an important part in the evaluation process.
“It hasn’t separated out,” Phelps said. “There’s guys that are showing great potential, but when we get the scrimmage in, then we’ll really start. Once we get it graded and figure out who’s in there making plays within the scheme of the defense, who’s doing things fundamentally sound. Then it’ll start to separate itself out going into that second scrimmage.”