SEATTLE -- Vita Vea's position coach at Washington, Ikaika Malloe, had seen the massive defensive tackle pull off all sorts of improbable athletic feats for over two seasons. So he was used to it when he saw Vea, covering a punt in his final college game, sprint some 40 yards to take down the returner with an open-field tackle.
At 6-foot-4 and 347 pounds, mind you.
"By that time, there's not really anything he can do to shock me anymore," Malloe told ESPN.com last month. "You kind of just shrug your shoulders and say, 'Yep, I'm not surprised by it.' He does things that normally people of his size should not be doing. But he does it with such ease that you take it for granted. You kind of get used to him doing those types of things. He's got footwork like a linebacker or even a DB. He can backpedal with the best of them and change direction and flip his hips. In the beginning, maybe a year ago ... that's kind of when I was in awe of things, just of what he can do and that type of stuff."
Vea, a projected first-round pick in this year's NFL draft, showed during his three seasons at UW that he's much more than just an athletic marvel. He started 27 games and in 2017 was voted the Pac-12's defensive player of the year and the conference's top defensive lineman. His 9.5 career sacks are proof he possesses the pass-rush ability that can separate good defensive tackles from great ones.
"When you're 6-4, almost 350 pounds and you have incredible strength and you've got unbelievable quickness for your size, that is a rare combination," ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "That's why he's drawing comparisons to Haloti Ngata. That's why I'm projecting him to go in the top part of the first round."
So just how freaky and dominant of an athlete is Vea? From outrunning a sprinter to jumping as high as cornerbacks and more, here are some tales told by those who have coached him and those who have played with him.
Chasing down a sprinter
Vea's first sport was tennis, which he played in after-school programs while growing up in Santa Clara, California. He was too big to play Pop Warner because of the league's size restrictions, so his first real taste of football came at Milpitas High School, where he spent four years on varsity. He played all over the field for the Trojans, including running back -- he scored 11 touchdowns as a senior -- and even some Wildcat quarterback as a 6-4, 240-pound freshman.
Kelly King, who coached Vea at Milpitas, on a play from his junior season: "We were down ready to score on the goal line against another team and the sprint champion from the other team [Delshawn Mitchell of Wilcox High School], we had fumbled the ball and he picked it up and was running down the sideline. Vita ran him down and caught him. The look in the guy's eye's that that guy had caught him was priceless. Unfortunately, we fumbled, but ... [Vea] probably tracked him down about 50 yards and caught him. ... He was the sprint champion of the league, so he was supposedly one of the fastest guys in the league, and he got caught from behind."
BYU running back Squally Canada, a teammate of Vea's at Milpitas who was on the field during that play: "Vita had 150 pounds on him and not only that, Delshawn had like a 30-yard head start and Vita came across the field. That was probably the craziest thing I've ever seen Vita do in my life. ... It was a toss right, I dropped the pitch, got tackled ... Delshawn happened to pick it up and Vita was on the other side of the field, and I just remember looking down from the ground and I'm seeing Delshawn and the crowd cheering and what not. I'm like, 'Oh yeah, it's over. It's a touchdown.' Next thing you know, here comes Vita. He grabs him and just pushes him out of bounds. And it was one of those things like, we all looked at each other like, 'Did Vita just catch Delshawn Mitchell?' We looked and we started wondering, 'How fast is Vita?' That was the question ... At 6-4, 285, he just caught a known track star. It was crazy, man. It was one of those things you had to see and be there for."
Vea ran the 40-yard dash in 5.1 seconds at the 2018 NFL scouting combine and suffered a strained hamstring in the process. His time ranked 11th among players listed as defensive tackles. The 10 times ahead of him, which ranged from 4.87 to 5.09, all came from players listed between 285 and 315 pounds. In other words, a bunch of significantly smaller defensive tackles ran slightly faster times.
Malloe, on a play Vea made during a game against Cal: "He did some type of pass-rush move, he ended up on the back side of the play and chased the quarterback from the far hash to the far sideline. And that was pretty impressive. He was passing people by. If I showed you the clip and you watched it, and you watch the opponent's coaches as they just stared at him saying, 'I can't believe that dude just ran that far,' you kind of sit in awe of the type of stuff he can do."
'I ain't never been hit like that in my life'
Canada, then a junior, on squaring off with Vea in practice during Vea's senior season at Milpitas: "They had us doing the Oklahoma drills. I was over there with the safeties and corners, because I played safety as well. I was dominating because I was pretty big amongst the people that was normal sized. So he comes over there, and he's like, 'I want to run the ball, Coach. Let me run the ball.' And our safety coach was like, 'Yeah, come on. Go ahead.' So he steps out there and nobody steps in. Everybody's scared. So I was like, 'All right, whatever. I'll step in.' And I don't know what I got into, but this was one of the hardest hits I've ever taken. I stepped in and I go head-up with him, shoulder to shoulder. He runs me over, looks down at me and steps over me. I was just like, 'Man, I ain't never been hit like that in my life.'"
'Him being able to do that is just very, very rare'
UW special teams coach Bob Gregory, on Vea's punt-return tackle in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl vs. Penn State: "We punted the ball and the returner kind of broke it to our right. We missed a couple tackles and Vita made a textbook sideline tackle. Open field. Pretty remarkable for a guy that big. ... First of all, he protects. That's the first thing he's got to do. Then the ball's punted. So they're kind of like that second line after the ball's punted. But he's busting his fanny down the field. Their returner, he made a couple guys miss. Talk about leverage and owning your leverage and your position, he did exactly all the drill stuff that we work on. It was a great shoulder tackle, bent knees, and he used the sideline to his advantage, pinned him to the sideline and made the tackle. ... Just his athletic ability, him being able to do that is just very, very rare."
Vita put up 41 bench-press reps at the combine. That was the second most among all players behind the 42 of Stanford's Harrison Phillips. It was confirmation of the strength that was obvious in his play.
Gregory, on Vea blocking a punt during a 2017 win against Colorado: "He had one of the most remarkable special teams plays I've ever seen. We were in what's called a safe punt return. We keep the defense on the field. It was against Colorado. He just blew through the A-gap and on their shield, three big offensive linemen. He went right through it and stuck his hand out and blocked the punt. Maybe the play of the game. It was a remarkable play. ... He just went and outmanned them. First of all, it was unbelievable power getting there, and then he was able to really elongate his body and get a hand on the ball."
Malloe, on a play Vea made during one Huskies game: "He was a zero technique and he did a bull-rush through the center. I won't say the team, but both guards ended up helping the center, so there's three guys that are blocking one guy and he actually gets to the quarterback without any resistance. I thought that was really, really impressive."
Rosen sacked for the second time in 1st
UCLA's Josh Rosen gets sacked for the second time in the first quarter. this time by Huskies' Vita Vea.
'That's what blew me away'
Vea's injured hamstring ended his combine early, preventing him from taking part in such drills as the vertical and broad jump (he also sat out UW's pro day the following week). From the sound of it, though, he doesn't lack for hops. Vea played basketball as a freshman in high school and could dunk as a 250-pound sophomore.
Malloe, on the freakiest feat of athleticism he witnessed from Vea: "Those box jumps that you see people do on YouTube, he can do them, like the highest box. That's what blew me away. He's jumping on boxes that our defensive backs are jumping on, and he shouldn't be doing it. He should be doing pretty much the lower-level ones, the ones that I can barely get on, those types of boxes. His explosiveness and just his ability to jump as high as he does and land soft on his feet, to me that was probably the most impressive thing that I've seen somebody his size do."
'He's still got a huge upside'
Pete Kwiatkowski, UW's co-defensive coordinator: "For how long and how heavy he is, for him to be able to run like he does, you just don't see that very often. Everybody talks about the athletic ability, and one of the things with him, he's still got a huge upside from the standpoint of understanding that he can play lower, he can play with better leverage, he can play with better technique. So you pair that with the physical gifts, and then the ability to keep growing as a football player, the sky's the limit for the guy."