Surrounded by the biggest media crush of the day and one of the biggest of the season, 6-foot-6 Halapoulivaati Vaitai towered over most reporters. He then spoke softly enough that his words didn’t quite reach the back of the crowd.
Vaitai is a quiet guy. It’s just his personality.
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In the offensive line meeting room, veteran Matt Tobin said the Eagles’ new starting right tackle — thanks to Lane Johnson’s suspension — sometimes talks to his fellow rookies but almost never talks to the vets unless he’s addressed first. Vaitai is reserved, but also friendly, flashing a boyish 23-year-old smile under his chubby cheeks as he apologized to Beau Allen, who couldn’t get to his locker thanks to the media swarm.
Knowing what we do about Big V’s reserved personality made Brandon Brooks’ comments about the rookie all the more surprising. When asked what he liked about Vaitai’s game, Brooks said his “aggressive nature” and “nasty demeanor.”
Aggressive nature? Nasty demeanor?
He must flip a switch.
“I’d say so,” Brooks said. “Different guy inside the white lines.”
“Yeah, he’s a tough player on the field,” Tobin said. “He goes hard. Off the field, he’s just quiet, a nice guy to talk to. So yeah, I guess he flips the switch.”
The Eagles hope Vaitai will flip that switch on Sunday, when the fifth-round rookie makes the first start of his very young NFL career.
The big rookie with the big name has a big responsibility on Sunday, filling in for Johnson, who was playing at a Pro Bowl level (see story). And the Eagles think Vaitai is ready.
“He’s worked extremely hard,” Pederson said. “He’s another one of those kids that he’s gone against our defensive front, not only in training camp, but practiced against them every single day. Smart kid, athletic kid, strong kid. Just excited to watch him play on Sunday.”
The Eagles decided to start Vaitai at right tackle this week, tossing the original plan of moving Allen Barbre from left guard to right tackle and replacing him with Stefen Wisniewski or Isaac Seumalo. Pederson said the idea of leaving Barbre at left guard, where he’s thrived, and Vaitai’s progression both heavily factored into the decision to go this route.
When asked, Pederson said he thinks Big V is ready for his new expanded role. But we won’t really know until he’s staring down pass rushers like Ryan Kerrigan on Sunday.
Plenty of fans are probably having flashbacks to the 2007 game, when Winston Justice in his first NFL start allowed six sacks to Giants pass rusher Osi Umenyiora.
It’ll be up to Pederson to help the rookie if he shows he needs it. While the head coach will help Vaitai as much as he can, he also doesn’t want to “handcuff” him too much and take away from his natural ability.
“We’re not changing game plan or any of that,” Pederson said. “As you get into the football game, if you see that a guy is needing some help, we can obviously help him with backs and tight ends like most teams will do. But if everything is great and going as planned, then no, we just roll. Obviously the run game helps guys like that, especially in their first start. So we lean a little bit more on that maybe. But it’ll be monitored. But a full week of practice with him and he’ll be fine.”
Vaitai knew it was a possibility he’d be the guy replacing Johnson when the suspension eventually took hold, but didn’t receive official word until he got a phone call from offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland on Monday night.
On Wednesday, Vaitai took his first reps with the first-team offense.
“Felt good,” said Brooks, who as the Eagles’ right guard, will line up next to the rookie on Sunday. “Knew what he was doing, was upbeat, confident, happy. Didn’t make any mistakes, that’s about all you can ask for.”
When asked last week and this week about his expanded role, Vaitai has continually said he just wants to protect Carson Wentz. On Wednesday, Wentz, who has taken Philadelphia and the NFL by storm through his first four games, said the entire rookie class is really close.
And Wentz is confident the right side of the line will keep him safe.
“I’ve spent some time with him, gotten to know him a little bit, and I’m excited to see what he can do on Sunday,” Wentz said.
Unsurprisingly, although he spoke for over five minutes on Wednesday, Vaitai didn’t have anything shocking to add to the conversation. He was just his usual humble, quiet self.
“It's a good opportunity and I'm going to take it,” Vaitai said softly. “It's unfortunate for Lane, but [it’s] life. Gotta be the next man up.”
Time to flip the switch.