Ikaika Malloe knows it sounds simple, maybe even a little silly. After all, telling a defensive lineman to just “go find the ball” seems like instruction that can be left unsaid.
But with redshirt senior Benning Potoa’e, that’s kind of the point.
“He’s a perfectionist so he over-analyzes things,” Malloe said after Washington’s practice on Monday. “If he can just align and go get the ball, pretty much everything will fit in after that.”
Potoa’e, who made the transition from outside linebacker to defensive lineman during the offseason, finds it easier to not overthink at his new position. While Potoa’e has been playing on the outside in certain packages — and attending the necessary extra meetings — he’s spending most of his time on the interior.
When he was on the outside, Potoa’e’s mind was constantly churning: Set the edge, drop, watch the receiver, the running back, the tight end. On the inside, it’s different. He still has certain assignments, but he can move more freely. Instead of thinking, he can just react.
“(On the outside), you try to anticipate something and it doesn’t go that way, it takes you completely out of the play,” Potoa’e said. “You end up somewhere or doing something or in a position you don’t want to be in. Being inside is like go forward, left or right if you have to. Just make a mess, really.”
Or, in the words of his defensive line coach, “go find the ball.”
And Malloe doesn’t particularly care how Potoa’e makes that happen. Understanding that lesson is a key part of Potoa’e development at the position, and it also just might be what made the switch a suitable fit.
“He knows where to go and basically he’s trying to start at step one and get to step five,” Malloe said. “Somewhere in between, that’s his talent. I think he’s built that skill. Now you can see it. He’s playing a lot better just reacting to things as opposed to going from step to one through one, two three, four and five.”
Redshirt junior Levi Onwuzrike and redshirt senior Josiah Bronson have been valuable tools for Potoa’e in understanding that concept. During their time on the defensive line, they’ve both learned that the coaches want to see just two things: Proper alignment and the finished product.
“Benning’s got to make his own identity in how to get there,” Malloe said.
Potoa’e is still shaping that identity, both on the field and off of it. Malloe described Onwuzurike as the position group’s emotional leader. He sets the tone, and he had the advantage of learning how from former defensive linemen Greg Gaines and Vita Vea.
Potoa’e, on the other hand, is new to the room. That means adding to the collective personality in his own way.
“We don’t want to put too much pressure on him,” Malloe said. “We just want Benning to be Benning. … We want Benning to focus on his responsibility (on the field) first. You can see it. When he gets confident, he gets really excited. As long as he’s getting excited, we’re doing pretty good as a group.”
Throughout his career after a stellar prep career at Lakes High School, Potoa’e has worked to find the right balance between his high expectations and not shouldering too much pressure — a middle ground between performance and comfort. As he prepares for his final season at UW, he feels like he’s found it.
Now, he has just one final goal in mind.
“Dominance,” he said. “Straight dominance through the middle or on the outside, wherever they play me or put me. Whenever I’m on the field, I just want to cause havoc and make a huge mess.”