By BEN JOHNSON
Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association defenses pride themselves on being rugged and physical — especially along the front line. It’s a chore to find defensive lines that don’t average anywhere from 280 to 300 pounds per man.
Of course, that excluded Northeastern State during the 2012 season. The RiverHawks, venturing into their first season in the league, deployed defensive lineman that were closer to averaging 250 pounds — with Kenny Garrett the heaviest at 290 and Logan Andrews as the featherweight at 200 pounds. NSU was essentially a welterweight entering a heavyweight fight.
“In the MIAA, you get pushed around a lot up front,” NSU head coach Kenny Evans said. “And when you wear down, often times your body weight is still a big factor in being able to get a good push.”
What hurt the RiverHawks was not having Kenley Choute and Faafetai Te’o. Both defensive linemen — who average 300 pounds a man — were forced to sit out last season due to various reasons.
Choute, who transferred from Fort Scott Community College after spending a season at Michigan State, had to clear NCAA waivers after going from a Division I school to a junior college then to a Division II school. Te’o, who played for the RiverHawks during the 2011 season, had to sit out in 2012 due to academic ineligibility issues.
Evans certainly missed them.
“Through spring ball last year, they were the two top defensive tackles,” Evans said. “Then to lose them during the season was a big blow going into a new conference, where size and physicalness have be a big attributes for your team.”
Not only were Choute and Te’o forced to sit out the season, but the pair also was not allowed to practice with the RiverHawks.
“I would not like to have to do that anymore,” Choute said of sitting out. “Just looking at the sidelines and seeing my team, and not to be a part of it and being able to help them out in games and stuff, it just hurt me.”
Adding to Choute’s point, Te’o said: “I was just in the stands watching my team practice. It was kind of tough for me to watch, so I would have to watch a little bit and then go work out. Even when they lost, me and Kenley would come in here and work out more, because we wanted to come up strong up the middle this season.”
The absences of both Choute and Te’o were noticeable. Without two potential starters up front, the RiverHawks ranked last in the MIAA in sacks and 10th (out of 15 teams) in rushing defense, allowing 178.4 yards on the ground per game.
“It hurt us in the passing game getting pressure and in the running game, because we didn’t have the size we needed in the interior,” Evans said.
Instead, Choute and Te’o were forced to work out and stay in shape on their own, without the guidance of NSU assistant coach John Murray, the RiverHawks’ strength and conditioning coordinator. But that time together helped Choute and Te’o build a solid rapport.
“I had Te’o to work out with,” Choute said. “We tried to push each other, and we used to get after it.”
Te’o and Choute may have come up with their own workout regiment, but with both back out for spring drills, Evans has noticed that both are still trying to get back into game shape.
“They have both looked really good, but there has been some rustiness,” Evans said of the duo. “Their enthusiasm and attitude is kicking in and that helps them overcome their rustiness. They will definitely help our football team improve.”
Both Choute and Te’o said they’re just happy to be back out on the football field.
“It felt great to just move around and put on the helmet,” Choute said. “Just moving around, knowing that you can hit somebody, that feels good. Now we just have to start preparing for games now.”
“It was just a matter of going out there and making plays,” said Te’o, whose team began spring practice last Tuesday and will conclude with the Green and White game on April 20. “Just had to go out and start filling gaps.”