If Houston Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin puts out a want ad for the position he'll need to fill again next season, he's not sure how many takers he'd get.
One way or another, every 3-4 defense needs a nose tackle.
"Just think about this: What kind of a guy would get up in the morning and look forward to going out in the afternoon for two hours and get double-teamed all day?" Sumlin said. "At best, you do a good job if you just hold up against 600 pounds and don't get moved back. Coaches say, 'Great job,' but nobody even knows you played. It's one of those jobs that not a lot of people like."
The UH nose tackle job belongs to senior Matangi Tonga — body willing, because the spirit certainly is - for the rest of this season. Tonga is the centerpiece of a UH defense that is bracing itself for a Saturday night encounter at Robertson Stadium with a Tulsa offense that is seventh in the nation in yardage (494.7), 11th in scoring (40.1) and 17th in rushing (214.1).
As dirty a job as it may be taking on double-teams virtually every play, Tonga figures he's uniquely qualified to do it. Tonga tore the meniscus in his right knee during an Oct. 9 defeat against Mississippi State, underwent surgery two days later, and was back in the lineup for a 40-33 loss to Central Florida last Friday.
"It might sound bad, but I really miss being in the trenches," Tonga said. "That's where the game of football is really played. All the offensive linemen nowadays are over 300 pounds easy. I'm constantly going against 600 pounds. It might sound crazy, but I really enjoy it. It's the game of football. Football would be no fun without banging."
Third college stop
Tonga came to UH this past January as junior college transfer. He lettered as a freshman at BYU in 2006, only to get kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons. He wound up at San Mateo College, where he earned junior college All-America honors and the endorsement of Rivals.com as a four-star prospect.
The Cougars gave Tonga a long look in the spring at defensive end, and he thrived. The coaching staff ultimately decided that despite Tonga's ability to create havoc on the outside, the team needed him even more to stabilize the middle.
Twice the challenge
"It wasn't really that hard," said Tonga, whose 16 tackles this season include four for losses. "When they put me back in the middle, I just had to man up and know I'm going to get double-teamed constantly. It's mentally challenging. You get used to it after a while.
"If you get a single block, it's really weird. I really don't know what to do. I'm used to two guys."
The weight of the 6-foot-2 Tonga usually fluctuates from 280 to 285. He'd like to have more bulk but has trouble gaining weight. When somebody suggested it would behoove him to get to 400 if he's going to keep taking on double teams, he laughed.
"If I were 400," Tonga said, "I don't think I'd be able to move."
He moves well enough that Sumlin refers to him as "probably" the Cougars' best defensive player. Never mind that 16 Cougars have more tackles than Tonga. Though Tonga rushed his return from surgery, he contributed four tackles - two for losses - against the Knights.
"It feels great to be back on the field," Tonga said. "It hurt watching them on TV. It hurt watching them on the sideline."