PULLMAN — Taylor Comfort had already begun preparing for the next stage of his life — the one that usually comes for college football players who don’t run a blistering 40-yard dash or have the traits that would get them in the door of an NFL camp.
The 6-foot, 280-pound walk-on defensive lineman and criminal justice major was getting ready for a line of work that didn’t involve pigskins, pads or pylons.
Because he’d exhausted his academic eligibility before his athletic eligibility, earning an undergraduate degree in May, Comfort saw a light at the end of his college football tunnel earlier this spring — even as his role on the gridiron was expanding.
It didn’t matter that the special-teams lifer was finally getting a long-awaited chance to contribute on defense. By the end of spring camp, Comfort had played well enough to emerge as the front-runner to replace Daniel Ekuale at starting nose tackle. But the Sultan native wouldn’t see his efforts out as long as he had to pay the walk-on rate.
“I’d already graduated, but I didn’t think I’d come back for another year of football because I couldn’t afford it just to take random classes,” Comfort said.
It was time for the Cougars to invest in Comfort.
In May, Comfort was one of five players WSU bumped from walk-on to scholarship. It meant he could cease his post-grad job hunt and continue to play the game he loves — now free of cost. In the classroom, Comfort will work toward a second degree in psychology this fall. On the field, he’ll try to secure WSU’s starting nose tackle job.
“It was a dream come true,” Comfort said. “Getting to play football, that’s the dream. I don’t want to get a job.”
Second-year defensive line coach Jeff Phelps got the privilege of breaking the news to his player.
“It was a great feeling,” Phelps said. “He’s worked his butt off and earned it and he’s what Cougar football is all about. A guy that comes in as a walk-on, from a small town, wants to prove himself and he comes out and does well.”
Jammed between defensive tackle Nick Begg and defensive end Will Rodgers III on the No. 1 defensive line, Comfort has held his ground through two weeks of fall camp, fending off one of the prized gems of WSU’s latest recruiting class: three-star junior college transfer Jonathan “Pono” Lolohea, who then left the program for unspecified reasons.
Ekuale, a 6-3, 276-pound American Samoa native, thrived at nose tackle next to All-American Hercules Mata’afa last season. Shaped more like a fire hydrant, Comfort has to find ways to compensate for his lack of height.
It’s a disadvantage in some cases — “It’s probably better to be tall,” he said, “but you work with what God gave you, right?” — but Comfort’s low center of gravity also has its perks.
“Because you don’t want him under your pads,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “He’s really good with that, both naturally and talent-wise with his strength and how violent he is with his hands.”
Leach also points out that Comfort is deceptively quick when it comes to running to the ball.
“The one thing you may not have noticed is there will be a lot of screens and … he’s right there in position to make the tackle after it’s like 3-5 yards down the field,” Leach said. “(He’s) in there in the middle of combat and then just sprints out there and he’s still in position. He runs a little better than you’d think.”
Comfort’s first start would also coincide with the first defensive snaps of his career. He appeared in all 13 games as a redshirt junior, but only on special teams. Comfort played in a single game in 2016 as a redshirt sophomore.
“Him playing gave us a really clear picture of what he could do,” Phelps said. “And with Garrett (McBroom) and Daniel graduating, he’s the one that’s played some college football for us. So it was an easy decision on our part.”
Leach wouldn’t place Comfort in the same category as other hard-laboring walk-ons — “I’d say he’s above that” — and compares him to another defensive walk-on that had success with the Cougars.
“We’ll see how his career finishes,” the coach said, “but he’s got some Parker Henry qualities.”