PULLMAN — First, the pronunciation should be clarified.
Ioane Gauta has heard so many inaccurate renditions of his first and last names that he’s instructed folks to just call him “Junior,” because he is named after his father and “Junior” is easier for most to pronounce.
“When people say Junior they look at me like, ‘he doesn’t look like a Junior. He’s too big,’” Gauta joked.
For those curious: his first name is pronounced You-WAHN-ay, and his last name is pronounced NOW-tuh. The “G” is said like an “N.”
Most know him as the big guy with the big hair in the middle of Washington State’s defensive line, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound junior nose tackle who has helped the Cougars to a No. 30 national ranking in run defense through their first three games.
For a junior-college transfer who has received starter’s repetitions from nearly the beginning of camp, Gauta has already caught the attention of onlookers eager to find reasons to be excited about WSU’s defense.
“He’s in better condition than when he got here in June,” defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “But he is one of our top run-stoppers, and he’s picked up the defense very, very well. He’s an integral part of our front four and they’ve done a great job against the run.”
That’s exactly what Gauta was brought here to do — plug the middle, occupy the attention of multiple offensive linemen and use his large frame to disrupt the path of the opposing ballcarrier.
He smiles when asked to describe his duties in Breske’s base 3-4 scheme.
“My job is basically to take two guys, take them out of the picture so our linebackers can make the plays,” Gauta said. “Being a big guy, it’s a big presence. I need to take that responsibility and hold it down for the defense.”
He has thus far. Through three games, the Cougars are allowing 107.3 rushing yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. Last season, WSU ranked No. 63 in the country in that category, yielding 157.2 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry.
Of course, that was after 12 games. WSU has played only three this season. It gets tougher from here. But Gauta’s presence has been an early positive for a defensive line that featured three first-time starters when the Cougars took the field for their opener against BYU.
“He’s probably one of our consistent guys right now,” said defensive line coach Joe Salave’a. “The challenge for him is to continue to push and find areas in his game that he needs to get better at.”
Gauta, who played his high school ball at Valencia in Anaheim, Calif., before playing two seasons at Fullerton Junior College, was being recruited by Kansas State — took a visit there — and Hawaii, but said he fell in love with Pullman when he came on his official visit in January.
He committed during his visit. It was snowing.
“I haven’t been part of a snow environment, but I love it,” Gauta said. “I love the cold weather.”
He’s been helped along by fellow defensive tackle Toni Pole, a redshirt sophomore who has made an effort of mentoring WSU’s younger Polynesian players.
Pole hosted Gauta on his visit. Gauta joked that he and Pole “go way back.”
“He’s a big influence on me,” Gauta said. “When I came in here he taught me the schemes and plays.”
The family feel was big, too.
“I think there were a lot of commonalities that Junior found, surprisingly, when he came here,” Salave’a said. “And it was the same thing with the other island guys that we brought here. It’s a feeling of belonging and being accepted around here, and that’s what we’re trying to build this program around.”
Said Gauta of Salave’a: “”He’s part of the reason why I came here. He told me that this team has a lot of potential and that I can be a big part of it.
“I know we have great history here of winning, and I wanted to carry that on with the two years I have left.”