PULLMAN - The Washington State defense was already bracing for the loss of several prominent seniors and the probable departure of unit coordinator Alex Grinch.
Now it's apparently bidding farewell to one of its best linemen ever.
Hercules Mata'afa, a consensus All-American as a junior in 2017, suggested via Twitter on Sunday that he's forfeiting his senior season to turn professional.
"I would like to thank the entire Coug Nation for all the love and support you've shown me throughout my four years in college," he tweeted. "I've had an incredible journey at WSU, and I couldn't be more grateful to the coaches, teammates, fans, friends, community and family who helped me along the way. I will always be a Coug at heart."
Although the news wasn't exactly surprising, Mata'afa isn't necessarily a high-round NFL prospect at this point.
At 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, he's too small to play the defensive-tackle role he played for the Cougars. He'll need to prove he can either gain weight without losing much quickness or adjust to a linebacker role demanding skills he hasn't been asked to display in college.
But he was tremendous this past season, slithering past or outmaneuvering much larger opponents and sometimes explictly affecting the momentum of a game. He finished the season with 45 tackles, including 221/2 for loss and 101/2 sacks, while forcing two fumbles and recovering another. He notched six official quarterback hurries and innumerable unofficial ones.
Rarely has a WSU defensive lineman in recent decades crafted a performance on a par with Mata'afa's showing in a 33-25 win at Utah last month, when he tallied eight tackles, three sacks and five TFLs while also forcing and recovering a fumble.
He was accorded first-unit status on three of the five major All-America teams, by The Associated Press, The Sporting News and Walter Camp. Mata'afa, of the Hawaiian island of Maui, was also named Polynesian Player of the Year.
The Cougars sorely missed him in the first half of the Holiday Bowl last week at San Diego as a he continued to serve a suspension for a targeting penalty in the Apple Cup. He took the field in the second half and recorded a sack and a QB hurry in the Cougs' 42-17 loss to Michigan State.
The WSU defense has made significant strides the past three years but must now replace several 2017 seniors, including Daniel Ekuale, Frankie Luvu, Isaac Dotson, Robert Taylor, Marcellus Pippins, Dylan Hanser and Garrett McBroom. The list may also include Peyton Pelluer, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in Game 4, but the Cougars are hopeful he will be granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA.
The Cougars are also expected to lose Grinch, the young coordinator who has orchestrated their defensive revival. He's reportedly headed for Ohio State in an unspecified role.
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