Since switching to defensive end from his linebacker position, 6-foot-3-inch, 265-pound speedster…
"The defensive line is probably the hardest position I've had to learn," said So'oto. "I've learned three or four positions on the team already, but learning the defensive line is probably the most challenging. Getting down that first step, having speed, quickness and strength is more crucial on the d-line because you have to use everything you have on every play than at other position that I've played."
The position has provided So'oto with a new set of challenges that he feels he is more suited for as a football player.
"I really love playing defensive end," said So'oto. "Sure it's tough and it might not be as hard with the individual drill stuff that we do because when I played outside linebacker Coach Lamb ran you into the ground. There are different challenges for each position, but playing on the defensive line has its own set of challenges. You're hitting on every play and using all of your muscles every single down, so in that way it's more challenging. But I love the physical side of football, so for me it's fun. It's a lot different than any of the other positions that I've learned such as tight end, fullback and outside linebacker, but it's fun."
So'oto has relied on his teammates to help make his transition a smooth one.
"Russell [Tialavea] has really helped me learn what's expected on the defensive line," So'oto said. "Also, Brett Denney and Jan Jorgensen have really helped me get up to speed more quickly and learn the position from the offseason to now. There's no one better to learn from than Russell, Jan and Brett. We work out a lot after practice and before practice watching film and stuff."
"This is only really his third day getting into it and it's tough to do," said Denney. "It's not easy just jumping in at the defensive end position like many people might think. There's a lot to playing the position and it's a very physical position to play. I think one of the biggest things Vic has going for him is he's very physical, so we know this is something that he has and will be an upside to his play. We're just trying to bring out the potential he has more quickly. It's just a matter of switching a few things up and I think he's going to be a very good player for us."
The biggest challenge Cougar defensive ends have to face is going up against big offensive lineman Matt Reynolds at the right tackle position. Denney, Jorgensen and Tialavea may have helped So'oto learn how to become a more effective defensive lineman, but Matt Reynolds has forced So'oto to apply it at the highest level.
"My biggest hurdle as a defensive end so far has been going up against Matt Reynolds," said So'oto with a smile. "He is the toughest offensive lineman I've ever gone up against. He is so quick out of his stance and shoots his hands when he's supposed to, so it's fun going up against him all the time and losing. After going up against him, he helps me to know what I need to work on during the next practice."
So'oto also credits Cougar defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi for helping him progress much quicker than expected.
"Coach Kaufusi has been one of the best coaches I've had the privilege to play for," said So'oto. "Every play there is something that you can work on and he just knows every detail. One thing that he has helped me with is being able to understand and see those little details. For example, one thing he helped me with is seeing the bigger picture. I'm so wrapped up in getting sacks and making plays, but it's more than that. It's about winning every play instead of making every tackle. I know that may sound kind of strange, but for us on the defensive line we're not going to have to most tackles.
"No one on the d-line is going to have the most tackles or the most sacks, so our responsibilities are much wider than that and that comes by setting up plays to better fit together as a defensive unit. We have to win every battle to help set up our teammates or the defense as a whole, and when the opportunity comes then we get the sacks and make the plays. But first it's about us winning every battle based on what we are trying to do."
"The biggest thing is just learning the small things," said Denney. "Coach Kaufusi goes over our technique and everything with us every day. He goes over everything from a single footstep, to hand placement, to leverage, to pad level and every little detail. We go over film and Coach shows us the little mistakes we make that we try and fix during our next practice. Right now that's what Vic is going through."
Jorgensen said So'oto is getting a better grasp on what it takes to become a more complete player at the defensive end position.
"I think the biggest thing Vic has learned is that there is more to playing on the defensive line than just firing out off the line," said Jorgensen. "There's more to just running after the quarterback or trying to tackle a running back, and I think he understands that now. He's doing a really good job learning the new position and getting things down. Give him a couple more weeks and he'll be in really good shape."
So far the Cougars have been practicing without full pads. This Thursday the team will don full football gear for the first time this fall. So'oto is anxiously waiting for that day to come to see how he fares.
"We haven't done anything in pads yet and I'm more of a physical player," said So'oto. "I guess you could say I'm more of a hit-and-then-play-later kind of player, so once we get to that stage I think things will change for me in how I'm able to play."
"He's big, strong and fast," said Denney. "As a defensive lineman that's how you have to be in order to keep those 300-plus-pound offensive linemen in check. Then you have to have speed so you can use that ability on the edges to get to the quarterback, and Vic has all of that. You look at his body type and he's got the physical tools to be a great d-lineman. He came in here as a tight end and has developed and changed to become the great player that he is on the defensive line. He's got it all and just needs to fine-tune a few things and he'll be really good for us."
It's been quite a while since So'oto has been able to use those God-given abilities to really lay the wood on someone. After suffering a season-ending injury during the second game of the season last year, and then aggravating the injury after having recuperated, So'oto is excited to get the pads popping once again after a much anticipated layoff.
"The doctors put a special kind of sols in my shoes to help me stay off my fifth metatarsal that I injured," he said. "It's kind of different for me because I have to learn how to walk and run differently. I have to kind of relearn things all over again with these new shoes, but things are coming along for me and once I get more experience practicing playing at the defensive end position I should be good to go."
"Vic is a great athlete and he plays really violent out there on the field," said Jorgensen. "He's had some injury issues in the past but I don't think those things will slow him down a single bit. He's just a great athlete and once he gets everything down he's going to be a great contributor to our team."