December 14, 2004
Haloti Ngata, No Lame Duck
By Mark Mitchell
Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Papua, New Guinea – these are just a few of the islands in the South Pacific that bring up visions of palm trees, sand, and crystal clear blue waters. For football die-hards, a mention of the South Pacific might prompt recalling the names of some really good football players. Within the past 10 years or so, football stateside has seen a relative explosion of talent coming from the South Pacific where, by nature and genetics, the men are big and strong. College football has taken notice and coaches are realizing that there are definitely places for these young men on their football teams.
Etuini Haloti Moala Ngata, born in Inglewood, California (not his land of origin – Tonga), is very much part of this South Pacific phenomenon, rising in the college football world. Complying with what seems like true island tradition, Ngata’s physique is a very big and strong. The 6' 5", 345 lb. defensive tackle for the University of Oregon Ducks is also surprisingly quick – a combination that makes the opposing offense cringe and NFL scouts drool.
When watching Ngata play, you can't help but believe that he was built specifically to play this game, but that was not always the case. He was once told that he had no place on a high school football team and was recommended to play at the JV level. That was before his mother placed a call to Highland High School in Salt Lake City where her brother, Haloti Sr., helped to approve a transfer for the young Haloti Ngata. He went on to become the best defensive line prospect in the country coming off of his senior year, earning a #1 ranking by both Super Prep and Prep Star Magazines. One can only imagine the thoughts of a high school coach left to bang his head on an empty locker that could have belonged to Ngata if he hadn't let him slip through his fingers.
After high school, nearly every major D-1 program in the country recruited Ngata. Those schools included Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas A&M, the majority of the Pac-10 Conference, and BYU, to whom Ngata originally pledged his verbal commitment. A devout Mormon, Haloti Ngata was expected to take a 2-year Mormon mission and play football for a school, which would leave his scholarship in place during that time. The two schools willing to do that were BYU and the University of Oregon. Ngata eventually chose to play for the Ducks where he could play alongside other Polynesian players whom he had met on the recruiting trail.
He would be thankful for those teammates when tragedy would touch what seemed to be a blessed life at the time. After coming off a fantastic freshman season and while preparing for the Seattle Bowl in December of 2002, Ngata tragically lost his father when his truck slid off a Utah highway. Matt Toeaina, his roommate had lost a brother and was able to help Ngata keep himself together. Haloti re-examined his goals and instead of going on the traditional Mormon mission he had planned, he decided to reach for the goals his father had set for him. "I just want to get a degree for him," Ngata has said, "I'm trying to work really hard for him in school. My dad stressed it. He wanted me to get a degree because he never graduated from high school and never went to college."
Ngata played in 12 games as a true freshman, missing only the season opener. Ngata broke into the starting lineup in the fifth game against Arizona. He finished the year with eight consecutive starts and was second on the team in tackles among defensive lineman. He had a season high 7 tackles in the game versus Oregon State, a startling statistic for a true freshman. Along with his impressive defensive play, Ngata was a forced to be reckoned with on special teams. He showed great agility in blocking kicks. His blocked PAT against the Bruins sealed a 31-30 victory for the Ducks and got them off to a 2-0 start in the Pac-10.
Ngata returned to football for his sophomore season at Oregon but the road would not be a smooth one. Named a Freshman All-American in 2002, Ngata was lost to a torn ACL before the first quarter of the 2003 season was completed. Even after missing almost all of last year, Ngata was being talked about in some very elite circles entering the 2004 season.
Upon his return this year, it was obvious that Ngata recovered from his torn ACL and was a welcomed and much needed presence on the field for the Oregon Ducks. Having lost two defensive tackles after last year’s Sun Bowl, Oregon needed Ngata to find himself at the forefront of the action. Had it not been for his injury, he would be among the most talked about defensive tackles in football. When you’re one and only year of college football is as impressive as Ngata's was, one year is all anyone needs to see. Seeing Ngata successfully returned from the injury, Duck fans were grateful to see more of him.
Because of his 2003 season lost to injury and his medical redshirt status, Ngata is only a sophomore this year and could conceivably stay for his junior and senior seasons. He dropped 20 pounds for the 2004 campaign, and has steadily improved as the year has progressed. He started the year close to 360 pounds, but his playing weight since the season started has been around 335. He finished the season with 46 tackles, 8.5 of those for a loss and he had 3.5 sacks. He also made a big impression this season on special teams blocking 2 kicks. Not exactly the numbers most people are used to from Ngata, but it took him a while to get back to form after the knee injury.
"I came back a little slower than I thought I would" said Ngata. "The first part of the season, I didn't think I did as well as I could have, but now I think I'm playing where I'm supposed to be at. I wish I could have been there earlier."
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ngata has NFL talent. However, the question now is will that talent be sought after in 2005, or will Ngata wait until 2006. He promised his father a college degree, and that may be a determining factor in whether or not he returns. All indicators are pointing that he will be back at Oregon next year. Said Ngata when asked about the NFL. "Nah, I don't think I'm ready for it and it's only a year after my injury. I don't think my body and technique are ready for that. I've got to work on my hands and my speed and quickness with my feet."
Ngata has been pressured about the NFL since the end of his freshman season. Had it not been for the knee injury last season, I don't think there is any doubt that Ngata is a first round pick in 2005. Missing almost an entire year hurts though, and if he were to enter as an underclassman he’d certainly be a first day selection, just not a first rounder, but most likely a mid to late second.
It’s likely Ngata returns for another season of Duck's football, despite money and fame that seem to tempt more and more underclassmen each year. It comes down to whether or not Haloti, himself, believes he is ready. He’s indicated he’s not ready. But there is a flip side, a compelling one – if I'm Ngata, with his power and ability, I'm not sure I risk another injury and having my draft stock plummet, or even completely disappear. Either way, you have to respect the kid for his honesty in saying he may not be ready. The last thing a young man wants to do is enter the NFL and not be physically ready to succeed.
Whether in a Ducks uniform or that of an NFL team, there’s every reason to believe that with his successful return from injury, we football die-hards will all have the opportunity to marvel at his abilities for a long time to come. Haloti Ngata is a load of fun to watch and above that; he seems to be a great person. While he is physically ready to play in the NFL tomorrow, his personal agenda might dictate staying in school. The NFL will be waiting for Ngata to join them, sooner or later, and fans will be ready with excitement and anticipation whenever that time arrives.