UW’s Vea hopes for 1 more shining performance in Fiesta Bowl

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Vita Vea

SEATTLE (AP) — Vita Vea took a calculated risk a year ago. He could have bolted Washington after his sophomore season for the NFL draft and cashed in.

By sticking around for one more season, Vea has earned a level of recognition that’s rare for a defensive tackle and that is likely to yield a big financial reward at the next level should he enter the NFL draft next year as expected.

“Coming back in the offseason, grinding it out, getting stronger, trying to get faster, learning more about the game, learning different techniques of playing (defensive) line and trying to get better,” Vea said. “Yeah, I feel like it was worth it to stay. This past year was amazing.”

There’s at least one more game left in Vea’s college career and it’ll be one more showcase for the 340-pound defensive tackle to flash his athleticism and skill on a national stage. Vea and the 12th-ranked Huskies will face No. 9 Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 30 and with it the challenge of trying to slow star running back Saquon Barkley.

It’s the perfect kind of test for what’s expected to be Vea’s final college game, even if he’s not commenting on his future yet. A year ago, Vea was a likely second-day pick in the NFL draft. If he leaves as expected after this season he’s almost universally regarded as a first-round selection.

“You know I can’t say anything about that. We have a game left,” Vea said. “I’m trying to focus on that. I can’t think about that right now. Just focus on Penn State and the bowl game.”

If he goes, Vea will leave after one of the most decorated seasons ever by a Washington defensive player. He was voted the Pac-12 defensive player of the year by the conference coaches and was named third-team AP All-American at defensive tackle.

He was the first Washington player named defensive player of the year in the conference since 1996 and just the fourth defensive player in school history to be player of the year.

“When those type of awards come you kind of take a step back and realize all the hard work is paying off,” Vea said.

Now consider Vea received the recognition without posting huge stats. He finished the regular season with 38 tackles and 3 ½ sacks, yet managed to influence every game.

Linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, the Huskies’ leading tackler, said the disruption Vea caused made it possible for others to make the play, even if Vea wasn’t rewarded with the stat.

“It shows the respect I think he deserves. Obviously, it’s not a glamor position, you’re not going to see gaudy sacks, gaudy tackles or anything like that but I think it shows people understand this dude is winning us football games and changing the game in ways that I don’t think anyone else in the conference really is,” Burr-Kirven said. “You look at our film and there’s games you can’t stop him.”

The game that seemed to change the discussion about Vea was his last one. Facing an offensive line that was considered one of the best in the conference, Vea completely dominated in the Apple Cup victory over Washington State. He was in the face of quarterback Luke Falk constantly and was a major reason the Cougars were held scoreless for three quarters and finished with (minus)-24 yards rushing as a team.

Amazingly, Vea had just two tackles against the Cougars, but it may have been his finest game. The Huskies hope he has one more performance like that against Penn State.

“Very proud of him to take on that task — of what people thought was already good and trying to make it better,” Washington defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe said. “I think he did everything we had for his goals . and he’s really focused on this game.”

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