OSU defense must prove it can make a difference
CORVALLIS — Kalani Vakameilalo and Jonathan Willis have a few things in common.
Both are starters on the Oregon State defense that must get better if the Beavers are to knock off Minnesota at 7 p.m. Saturday at Reser Stadium.
Each was recruited by Mike Riley's staff to OSU.
And both are highly motivated to help the Beaver defense that has yielded more than 500 yards apiece to Colorado State and Portland State.
"We're way better than we've shown so far," says Willis, a 6-1, 235-pound junior outside linebacker. "We have some serious proving to do."
"I'm surprised with our (defensive) results so far," says Vakameilalo, a 6-3, 315-pound junior tackle. "We worked so hard in the offseason and thought we were doing everything we should do. The first two games, it didn't show up the way we want it to."
Oregon State's opponents have averaged 45 points in the first two games, not the way defensive coordinator Kevin Clune expected it. Clune is taking a positive approach as he prepares for the Gophers.
"The effort has been there," Clune says of the OSU defenders. "These guys are really working hard. The try-hard has been there. That part of it has been great.
"But the run defense has to improve tremendously. We all know that. Little pieces have to get shored up. I think the kids are ready to take that next step and play together more as a team, more as 11-strong on defense."
Colorado State rushed for 191 yards in a 58-27 rout of Oregon State in the opener. Last Saturday, Portland State went for 291 yards on the ground in the Beavers' 35-32 victory. Run defense is the focus for the Beaver "D" in practice this week.
"The guys have to play gap-sound," Clune says. "They have to tackle better. We have to have everybody understanding his assignment on each play. That sets the foundation for the rest of it."
Oregon State's defense is predicated more on speed than size, set up to face the many fast spread offenses in the Pac-12. Colorado State lined up in a pro-style offense similar to Stanford's, with two running backs and a tight end. Portland State also employs a run-oriented attack.
OSU's base defense is a 3-4, with three linemen and four linebackers.
"Each game offers a different set of things we have to stop," Clune says. "We're trying to put the right pieces together and the right people in the right spots.
"We have different packages that fit with the offensive packages we'll face. When (the opponent) spreads out, we'll usually take a lineman out and put in a nickel (back). Or on third down (and long), we'll put in another DB for a dime package. We're trying to find the best personnel group to have the best success against what they're doing."
Oregon State often is using only two down linemen, with four linebackers (at least one on the line of scrimmage) and five backs. That works best against a pass-first offense, something the Beavers haven't seen the first two weeks — and won't see again Saturday.
OSU occasionally employs a four-man front, and used it a few times against the Vikings. But Clune has only six players to use in his D-line rotation, and feels he has more depth at linebacker and in the secondary.
"We're just trying to find the best 11 to put out on the field," he says. "This week is a whole new set of challenges. We'll use the four-man front a little bit. Mostly, we're trying to find our best players and put them out there."
Two of them are Vakameilalo and Willis. Vakameilalo started one game as a redshirt freshman in 2015 and six games last season, but he is coming into his own this season.
"Kalani is doing great," Clune says. "When he doesn't do little things here and there exactly right, he's always working it. He and Titus (Failauga) have stepped forward big time the last couple of months in leading our front. I expect them to be leading the way the rest of the season."
Vakameilalo comes from good stock. A first cousin, former Arizona State offensive guard Paul Fanaika, played three years in the NFL. A second cousin, ex-Duck Haloti Ngata, is with the Detroit Lions, in his 12th NFL season as a defensive tackle.
But Vakameilalo, the sixth of seven children (five girls) in his family growing up in Honolulu, didn't play football until his sophomore year of high school. From the time he was about 10, he helped his father, Esau, with his construction business.
"Landscaping, masonry — I was helping Pop with whatever he needed," Vakameilalo says.
Then, one day during his freshman year, a high school football coach noticed a very big kid and asked him why he wasn't out for football.
Vakameilalo developed well enough at Kapolei High to become the state's No. 1 recruit his senior year. He chose Oregon State over Washington, Washington State, Arizona State and Pittsburgh primarily because of then-defensive coordinator Mark Banker.
"Coach Banker heavily recruited me, and he was close to my family," Vakameilalo says. "I just decided this was the school for me."
One problem: There was an awful lot of Vakameilalo. He weighed 270 pounds during his senior season at Kapolei. By the time he arrived in Corvallis the summer before his first year at OSU, he weighed 360.
"After the football season, I didn't work out," he says. "I was just eating every day. I gained at least 90 pounds. (OSU coaches) were a little upset with me when I got here. I had to do extra cardio and redshirted the first year."
Vakameilalo got himself into shape, worked into the rotation as a redshirt freshman and played a lot last season. This year, he and Failauga are the Beavers' best D-linemen, though Vakameilalo is his own worst critic.
"I still have a lot to work on," he says. "We've not been as good as we've needed to be in the front, and I've had a lot to do with it. I've been staying up too high. I have to be more gap-sound. I can do better."
Finally, in the fourth quarter against Portland State, the OSU defense got some penetration and made some tackles in the backfield.
"We were better in the fourth quarter," he says. "We should have played like that from the beginning, but I feel that's going to give us a little momentum going our way into the next game."
Vakameilalo says he has red-lettered Saturday's game since Minnesota beat Oregon State 30-23 in the opener for both schools at Minneapolis last season.
"(The Gophers) came from behind and beat us," he says. "This is one of the teams I wanted to get back at. Hopefully, they won't do that to us at our place.
"This game sets the tone for us for the rest of the season. If we win and hit the ground running now, we should move on and keep improving."
Willis is in his third season in the rotation at linebacker and his first year as a consistent starter.
"Jonathan does what we ask him to do," Clune says. "He's had two great games for us; he needs to keep that consistency going. We're very happy with what he has done so far.
"He can play down like a lineman at times. He can play out in space, or at inside linebacker. There's a versatility to him not many of our players have. We'll keep plugging him in there and using him the best way we can."
Willis came to Oregon State after serving as a sack machine his final two seasons at Booker T. Washington High in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He had 15 1/2 sacks as a junior — despite playing with a cast on a broken hand much of the season — and 13 as a senior.
"It was desire," he says. "I just wanted to get to the quarterback."
But Willis, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, was undersized at 200 pounds as a senior. He didn't attract much recruiting attention.
"Oregon State was my biggest offer," he says. "Oklahoma wanted me to weigh 220 before they would offer me a scholarship."
It helped that Oklahoma native Michael Doctor was a starting linebacker during Willis' senior prep season and his first year at OSU.
"Michael was a great influence on me," Willis says. "I knew that coming out here, there would be somebody who had been in my shoes. He liked it here, so I knew I would."
After a redshirt season, Willis had an outstanding redshirt freshman season in 2015, starting four of the past five games and ranking third on the team with 67 tackles. He played more sparingly last season, starting only two games while making 26 tackles.
"I had some seniors playing ahead of me," he says. "I stayed patient. I knew my time would come, and I'd take advantage of it."
Willis says he intends to take more of a leadership role the rest of the season.
"In terms of getting the team together to make sure we shake the defense up and play like we can play," he says. "We need to do a lot better. Communication is still lacking between the players as the game is going on.
"But we're feeling good about ourselves moving forward. We're always going to have people under-rating us. We just ignore that. The Minnesota game will be a good test to see how much we've improved. I think it will be a lot."