PULLMAN — Washington State nose tackle Ioane Gauta is making quite a name for himself, even if no one seems to know how to pronounce his name.
Gauta’s first and last names — pronounced U-WAHN-nee NOW-tuh — sound nothing like the spelling would indicate. No wonder most people just call him by his nickname, Junior.
Gauta is hard to miss on the field with his long, black hair flowing from beneath the back of his helmet.
More importantly, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound junior college transfer is hard to miss because of his fine play.
“He’s done a real good job,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “Ahead of schedule. Adapted quickly.
“Like anybody, it took a little bit of (fall) camp to get used to things, but he has been a very pleasant surprise.”
Gauta’s rugged presence in the middle has helped the Cougars climb to 30th in the nation in rushing defense (107.1 yards per game). The Cougars have allowed just one rushing touchdown.
“My job, basically, is to take two guys,” Gauta said. “Take them out of the picture so our linebackers can make plays.”
Still, Gauta has recorded 11 tackles (five solo) in three games, including two tackles for losses.
“I’ve always been a team person,” Gauta said. “Part of it is with my faith, my Christian background.
“I love helping people. As big as I am and as mean as I look, I can be the nicest guy.”
Leach said he appreciates Gauta’s selfless attitude, “and he brings enough enthusiasm out there that he kind of ignites the other kids around him.”
Gauta is surprisingly athletic for his size. Of course, it wouldn’t be such a surprise if you knew he played quarterback on the freshman team at Garden Grove (Calif.) High School.
“We went undefeated,” Gauta recalled. “I threw a couple touchdown passes, rushed for one.
“We had a great team. I was skinny at that time. I was about 6-1, 225.”
The “skinny” freshman had to sit out the following year after transferring to Valencia High, where he lettered two years in football, basketball, track and volleyball (“I love volleyball!”).
Gauta drew little recruiting interest in high school, possibly due to poor grades that made him academically ineligible for Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
Gauta said he appreciates the academic assistance he received while playing two years at Fullerton College, a junior college near his Anaheim, Calif., home.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Gauta and his family moved to Anaheim when he was in grade school.
Hawaii recruited him out of high school and again in junior college, but he said Kansas State, Colorado State and WSU were the only schools that offered him scholarships after last season.
Gauta has made the Cougars’ decision look good thus far, and the big Samoan likes to think he looks good with all that hair flyin’ out of his helmet.
“It’s part of my culture, having long hair,” he said with one of his frequent smiles. “Guess it’s a sense of power.”