Utah State Defensive Tackle AJ Pataiali’i: Overcoming Adversity

Humbled by a journey through the ranks of college football which has presented many hurdles, Utah State defensive tackle AJ Pataiali’i is ready to jump the last of them. Pataiali’i, a 6’3″ 307 lb. defensive tackle from West Valley City, Utah, finished his senior season with 42 tackles, three and a half tackles for loss, and one sack. Pataiali’i was named to the All-Mountain West Second Team following his stellar senior season. While his story is different and his obstacles have been tough, Pataiali’i uses them as motivation as he prepares for the NFL.


Utah State Defensive Tackle AJ Pataiali’i (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)

Coming out of Hunter High School in West Valley City, Utah, Pataiali’i was not heavily recruited by many division one programs, but received preferred walk on opportunities following his senior season. Pataiali’i admitted that his grades weren’t where they needed to be for him to receive a scholarship, and played a key factor in why he didn’t. Pataiali’i then decided to take a spot at Snow College instead of the the division one route. “It was a great opportunity to start somewhere. Snow wasn’t too far from home, just two hours.” Pataili’i described of his Snow College choice in an interview with Pro Football Central.  After spring ball of his freshman season at Snow, Pataiali’i received a scholarship from the program.

In his sophomore season, 2011, at Snow the team finished with a 10-3 record, while Pataiali’i played a key defensive role finishing the year with 23 tackles, four tackles for a loss, and two sacks. Many athletes who attended Junior Colleges play two seasons and then get offered a scholarship to a NCAA program, and for Pataiaili’i it was Kansas State. But shortly after Kansas State and Coach Bill Snyder offered Pataiaili’i a scholarship, it was rescind due to falling grades. Pataiaili’i was then forced back home to Salt Lake Community College to finish his Associates Degree. While at Salt Lake Community College, Pataiali’i received a call from then Utah State head coach Gary Anderson. Pataiali’i finished his degree from Salt Lake Community College and was ready for the opportunity presented by Coach Anderson.

After an improvement in his academics, Anderson and staff offered Pataili’i a scholarship to play football at Utah State. The two built a strong relationship, but then the news that Anderson was taking a job at Wisconsin was struck to Pataiali’i. “Coach Anderson and I were really close, he actually tried calling me eight to nine times to tell me the news, but I didn’t want to hear it”, Pataiali’i described of his relationship with his former coach. The two still stay in contact, and have been in touch during the NFL Draft process as Anderson gives advice and helps Pataiali’i through the hectic process.

After the coaching change, Pataiali’i was ready for his next step at Utah State. As a two year member of the Utah State defensive line, Pataiali’i finished his career with 66 tackles, six tackles for a loss, and two sacks. Pataiali’i played in all 27 games at Utah State, but broke into the starting lineup late in his Junior season and every game his Senior year. “I had to adapt and learn what it was like to play division one football in the Mountain West. There are so many different techniques and schemes you use at this level compared to junior college”, said Pataiali’i of his transition from a rotational guy to starter. Following the 2013 season Pataiali’i was named to the All-Mountain West Conference Second Team, a big honor for him and his program.

Being named to the Mountain West All-Conference team is nothing to overlook on Pataiali’i. A conference that is on the rise, as Pataiali’i describes that elite athletes and great competition have come from the conference in recent years. Through his career Pataiali’i has matched up with some of the country’s top 2013 and 2014 NFL Draft Center prospects including; Weston Richburg, Matt Paradis, Zac Kerin, and Travis Frederick. Though Pataiali’i has played against great competition in his career at Utah State, he faced a big challenge everyday in practice with another one of the top centers in the country, Tyler Larsen.  Pataiali’i learned a lot from Larsen, as the two walked to practice together and would coach each other up and what their positions look for from the opposition. “I learned a lot from Tyler, whether it be what a center is thinking to how he is going to block a zero technique. It built a great deal of confidence in me knowing if I can compete with Tyler, I can do it with any center in the country”, Pataiali’i said of having Larsen to learn from.

Pataiali’i credits his technique, along with his size, as key attributes to his game play. Coming from junior college, where many prospects describe that technique isn’t stressed, Pataiali’i worked hard at mastering it at Utah State, evident of his All-Conference honors. A big stuffer in the middle of Utah State’s 3-4 defense, Pataiali’i is listed at 6’3″ 307 lbs. He brings a stop the run mentality, a bread and butter characteristic of a defensive tackle in the 3-4 defense. Pataiali’i describes that with his size and run stopping ability, he enjoys watching guys like Haloti Ngata and Geno Atkins, both known for their size and ability in the middle of the defensive line to stop the run. “Haloti is another local product that I enjoy watching. He is a big guy, like myself who is good at stopping the run. He also is a great Polynesian example, on and off the field, for the young Polynesian athletes like myself.” Pataiali’i watches a good deal of film on Ngata, one of the NFL’s top 3-4 defensive tackles, to pick up things for his game.

Though Pataiali’i’s size and skill set is best suited for the 3-4 defense, it won’t limit him in the NFL. While playing in an even front defense at Snow College, Pataiali’i has experience in an even front at Utah State also. The Utah State defense uses multiple fronts and he feels comfortable in both defenses. “I actually loved playing in the 4-3, it gives us a lot of freedom as defensive linemen to get after it”, said Pataiali’i when talking about his experience in both even and odd fronts. On the field Pataiali’i will bring his size, strength, and versatility to an NFL organization, while his off the field mannerisms will impress scouts and general managers also. Pataiali’i credits his hands on, quick learning approach along with loyalty to the team as attributes he can provide to a NFL locker room. An extremely humble prospect, Pataiali’i has overcome a great deal of adversity very well, something that excites GM’s and scouts. While his recruitment, switching schools, and a coaching change that hit hard for him have all been tough, Pataiali’i was also welcoming in the birth of his son, Kyson, during his career. A blessing and motivation for Pataiali’i, the example is being set pleasantly by his father.

As Pataiali’i prepares for the NFL Draft, he is working with trainer John Madsen. Madsen, a former NFL Tight End out of Utah, comes from a similar background as Pataiali’i. Both Madsen and Pataiali’i are from West Valley and began their career’s at Snow College. Pataiali’i sees Madsen as another coach for him both physically and throughout the process. Seeing improvements in both his strength and explosiveness, Pataiali’i is continually working at improving both of these, as a man his size can always benefit from becoming stronger.

For Pataiali’i the “lights will come on again” during his April 1st Utah State Pro Day. With Utah State boasting prospects Pataiali’i, Larsen, Nevin Lawson, D.J. Tialavea, and Maurice Anderson, the large turnout of scouts and general managers will give Pataiali’i another chance to show off his size, strength, and versatility. Motivated by his family and what he has overcome, Pataiali’i should have no problems in this final obstacle, opening the eyes of these scouts.