Halapoulivaati Vaitai's wait to become a starter for the Eagles might end up being significantly shorter than his name.
The Eagles’ fifth-round draft pick from TCU — whom everyone in the building affectionately and mercifully calls “Big V” — could get a chance to start the first game of his young career once Lane Johnson’s suspension takes hold, perhaps as soon as next week against Washington.
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If the Eagles choose to go this route, Big V will have a big hole to fill.
“Gotta get ready, you know? It’s my job,” the soft-spoken rookie said Wednesday. “Gotta step up. Gotta be the next man up. They depend on me, so I’m going to give everything I’ve got.
“I was pretty calm about it. If it comes down to it, like I said, it’s my job. I have to protect Carson (Wentz).”
From the time the Eagles first learned about Johnson’s impending suspension, the team planned to move Allen Barbre from left guard to right tackle and then replace him with veteran Stefen Wisniewski or rookie Isaac Seumalo.
On Wednesday, head coach Doug Pederson revealed that the team is now thinking about leaving Barbre at left tackle and inserting Vaitai, which would change just one position instead of two (see story).
If Vaitai does get a start, he’ll become the first Eagles rookie offensive lineman to start a game since Johnson in 2013 and the first rookie drafted in the fifth round or later to start a game for the Eagles since Dennis Kelly in 2012.
Of all offensive linemen drafted by the Eagles in the fifth round or later, Vaitai would become just the 10th in the modern era to start as a rookie.
Vaitai, 23, admitted he hit some bumps in the road when he arrived in Philly in May, but has improved considerably during the last few months. He’s been leaning on Johnson and Jason Peters and has improved his technique.
His teammates, as well as coaches, have noticed.
“I think he’s worked hard and focused on his technique,” Barbre said. “I think he’s a good young player. I think he’s got talent. I think he’s got all the ability to do it.”
Among the things Vaitai has improved are his footwork, hands, leverage and hips. He said the main thing was loosening up his stiff hips to go against quick defensive ends.
Speaking of defensive ends, Vaitai gets to go against some pretty good ones during practice. In fact, Pederson said Vaitai’s been going against the starting defensive linemen during practice since the start of the season, which has accelerated his growth. Facing veteran Brandon Graham has really helped him.
“[Graham] does everything to me,” Vaitai said. “He says, ‘I’m going to do what I do in games so I can help you get ready.’ Just the technique. When I first started here, I was a long way away.”
When Vaitai arrived at TCU as a freshman, he played right away at right tackle and was eventually moved to left tackle. During his time with the Eagles, he’s played only on the right side.
The rookie said the biggest part of transitioning from college to the NFL is getting used to his new lifestyle, saying it’s like being a freshman all over again.
“This is the league and this is a job,” he said. “And you’re trying to keep it, keep it as long as you can.”
Pretty soon, it looks like he’ll get a chance to show he belongs.