CORVALLIS — It’s the kind of question that could only come up at Oregon State.
Can the Beavers fill their opening at middle linebacker with a player who has more experience in mixed martial arts than football?
Well, yes, based on the early reviews of sophomore David Pa’aluhi III, headed for his first collegiate start when OSU opens against Portland State on Sept. 5.
“We’re fired up about him because he’s such a physical player,” OSU defensive coordinator Mark Banker said.
“I think he’s going to do really well this year,” chimed in Keaton Kristick, OSU’s candidate for national honors at outside linebacker. “People are going to be really surprised.”
That certainly seems likely. It’s not that Pa’aluhi has come out of nowhere to the starting lineup … but almost.
He played one season of high school football, and that only after the insistence of his father. His high school coaches in Waianae, Hawaii, put him at defensive end, and essentially turned him loose.
“I pretty much just got the basics and went to the ball every play,” Pa’aluhi recalled. “When I came (to OSU), I didn’t know too much about really anything (related to football) … I didn’t know defensive schemes or how to play the offense.”
He spent the 2007 season as a redshirt, but was impressive physically. He could run like few middle linebackers, and there was certainly no question about the physical way he played.
By last fall, he’d learned enough that he could fill in as a backup, and help out when the Beavers went into their nickel alignment on obvious passing downs as a faster middle linebacker in coverage who could also rush the passer.
And now? There he is, a 5-foot-11, 233-pound rock in the middle of the OSU defense that again has the look of a unit that is going to cause some major problems for opponents.
That’s a fairly fast ascent by anyone’s measurement.
“Dave is an extremely focused person,” Banker said. “When you talk to somebody and you’re giving them instruction, there are people who look at you and then the next thing you know when you set them free, it’s like they didn’t hear a thing.
“Dave is somebody who listens and comprehends and then is able to put it into action.”
As much as he’s learned at OSU, more impressive might be the natural abilities that first brought him to the attention of the Beavers.
Pa’aluhi literally had no background in football, or any team sports, until that fall of his final high school year. His background was in martial arts, with a father who competed in the sport and then opened a training gym for fighters.
What could be more natural than competing in jujitsu or kick boxing? Particularly in his home state.
“We come from a warrior culture, so being able to fight, it’s a respect thing,” Pa’aluhi said. “Everybody likes to do it, it’s just sort of our everyday life.”
And yes, some of it does translate to football.
“It’s helped me a lot, just that toughness it gives you, and it makes you an overall athlete,” Pa’aluhi said. “It gives you speed, strength, balance … it made me never give up. I was always going full speed and never backing away from anything.”
Kristick said he can see the martial arts come into play when Pa’aluhi “does all that hand stuff” while battling with blockers.
Imagine how it looks when Pa’aluhi is in the octagon for an MMA fight.
“I wouldn’t want to be the guy on the other side,” Kristick said. “He’s a powerful guy.”
Until Pa’aluhi’s senior year, the only sport he competed in for his high school was wrestling, where he was twice a league champion.
Why finally football? His father insisted he try a team sport.
“It was going out of my comfort zone, being with a team and having to interact with more people,” Pa’aluhi said. “It was different, but I liked it.”
There was instant success. Enough that playing beyond high school became almost immediately realistic, at least to Pa’aluhi.
“I was getting a lot of sacks and making a lot of tackles,” he said. “I looked around at other people who I knew were getting offered scholarships and I felt maybe I was playing just as good as them, so maybe I could get a scholarship, too.”
The University of Hawaii was recruiting Pa’aluhi, and had competition after OSU went to Honolulu to end the 2006 season and a high school coach made Banker aware of Pa’aluhi.
“I’ve got good sources in Hawaii, and I trust their evaluation and judgment,” Banker said.
After watching a DVD with Pa’aluhi’s highlights, Banker liked “the speed and strength and he had the instincts … then when you met him and found out his background, we said ‘let’s go.’”
Yeah, just the usual recruiting story … at OSU, anyway.
Remember, this is the school that took a tip on one Rodgers brother and ended up with the two key players on its offense. This is the team that could have three players starting on offense in the opener who didn’t even have scholarships when they arrived at Oregon State.
All that, plus a middle linebacker with much more experience in mixed martial arts than mixing it up on a football field.
“Somebody tells you about a Pa’aluhi, so you go uncover the rock, investigate and the next thing you know, you’ve got a gem like that,” Banker said. “I don’t think there are a lot like that, and you don’t want to look for the needle in the haystack because you’re going to be in trouble doing that all the time, but sometimes they turn out.”