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Vita Vea selected ahead of Hercules Mata’afa for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year

Cody O’Connell also is named to the all-conference first team.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Despite one of the more dominant defensive performances during one of the better seasons in Washington State Cougars history, Hercules Mata’afa was not selected as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea was the winner, the conference announced on Tuesday.

It would have been the first DPOY honor for a Coug since Mark Fields won the award in 1994, and just the second time overall. Jason Gesser was the last player of the year honoree, sharing the offensive award with Carson Palmer in 2002.

After being left off the all-Pac-12 teams altogether in an all-American campaign in 2016, offensive guard Cody O’Connell joins Mata’afa on the first team. Offensive tackle Cole Madison, safety Jalen Thompson and place kicker Erik Powell each earned second team honors. The teams are selected by a vote of Pac-12 coaches.

Quarterback Luke Falk, offensive tackle Andre Dillard, linebacker Frankie Luvu and running back Jamal Morrow each were named honorable mention, meaning they were named on at least one all-conference ballot.

The WSU defense surged this season under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, and Mata’afa’s unique skill set was a massive part of that. Despite standing 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, he racked up 21.5 tackles for loss from his interior defensive lineman position, including 9.5 sacks, using his tremendous quickness to shoot past flustered and frustrated linemen.

Both of those figures led the Pac-12; the TFLs were a full five ahead of the next player, and they dwarf Vea’s statistical production. Vea tallied 25 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 5.5 TFL, seemingly all in the Apple Cup. While numbers don’t necessarily reflect the impact that an interior lineman has, the large gap in sacks and TFL suggests that the voters are drastically off base.

Mata’afa also was named to the SB Nation all-American first team, perhaps a precursor to an Associated Press honor later this week? Stay tuned.