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Athletic DT Vita Vea becoming more well-rounded defender for Huskies

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Washington DL Vita Vea knows that getting to Colorado QB Steven Montez (0:39)

Washington DL Vita Vea knows that getting to Colorado QB Steven Montez and actually taking him down will be important for the Huskies. While Montez has been sacked 8 times in 3 games he's completed 9 of 14 passes (64.3%) for 129 yards with 2 TDs and an INT when under duress this season. Six of those completions went for first downs. Video by Edward Aschoff (0:39)

SEATTLE -- Highlights of Washington's Vita Vea usually don't fit the traditional narrative of what a defensive lineman should look like. It isn't his size that catches you off guard -- although he stands a hulking 6-foot-5, 340 pounds -- it's what he does with that size that can leave you both confused and somewhat terrified.

His shoulder pads squeeze around massive shoulders sitting above arms with anaconda thickness. His belly doesn't necessarily spill over his pants, but his jersey has that Baby Gap aesthetic to it. His legs are tree trunks, and when they start churning, he transforms into a massive blur of pandemonium ready to crash into something.

He runs as fast as linebackers and cuts as quick as running backs. He races skill players. He has a 4.8 40-yard dash time. Strapped with a Catapult GPS monitoring device, Vea was supposedly clocked running between 19 and 21 mph while chasing down a screen play against USC last season. A former oversized high school running back and Wildcat quarterback, Vea has cannonball speed and power that has turned him into one of college football's most intriguing 2018 NFL draft prospects.

"A man of his size running 21 mph is pretty scary -- for opponents," said co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake, a former safety who refuses to race Vea out of fear of losing.

"I've coached in the National Football League, and I've never seen a guy of his size play with that explosiveness. He's pretty special."

"You'll see him do it at least twice a game," defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe added. "He will turn and run, and he's flying at least 30 yards down the field trying to catch somebody. It's kind of a scary thought. If he actually catches them, that might not be good -- with the momentum and the speed that he picks up."

Vea arrived at Washington as more of an athlete than a true defensive tackle prospect. Now, he's the engine of a Huskies line that no longer has All-Pac-12 stalwart Elijah Qualls and a key cog on a defense that lost four starters from last year's Pac-12 champion.

After starting five games last season and putting enough on film to have the pleasure of saying he spurned NFL millions -- and a second-round draft grade -- Vea leads a new-look Washington defense into a crucial early-season Pac-12 game with a Colorado (3-0) team that might still be rediscovering its offensive legs but returns nine starters.

It'll be a rematch of last year's Pac-12 championship game when No. 7 Washington (3-0) meets Colorado in Boulder, but both teams are still in search of their 2017 identity. For Vea, he has found that his new identity is organized chaos with a side of reckless abandon that comes from a guy who has the otherworldly measurables and intangibles suited for the X-Files.

"Anyone can go out there and play balls to the wall and do well, but it comes to a point in time where that only takes you so far," Vea said. "That was me last year, and this offseason I really grabbed a hold of actually learning the game ... instead of going out there and just bull-rushing every single play."

It was hard for Vea to shed that kamikaze approach. When you're asked to put your head down and plow -- on offense and defense -- you don't exactly make time for technique. So he didn't, and his introduction to the college game suffered.

Already a year behind as a freshman in 2014 after not qualifying academically following his 2013 high school graduation, Vea's arrival was stressful. Players at his skill level or better lined up next to and across from him every day, and fall camp exhausted him. As his strength dipped, his lack of technique weighed him down in practice.

After redshirting, Vea played in 13 games in 2015, managing 17 tackles, including three for loss, and a sack. The potential was showing, but he needed a much bigger push. Enter Malloe, a former Washington letterman who was back to coach the defensive line in December 2015.

When Malloe arrived, he wasn't sure how Washington found Vea or how to use him. Vea was already a freakish work in progress, but his fundamentals lagged, and he struggled mastering his playbook, assignments, and towering pad level.

Malloe was tasked with trying to tap Vea's full potential by improving his knowledge and technique without compromising his skill set. He also had to make sure Vea was working to get bigger and stronger without losing that unique speed.

Malloe admits it was overwhelming to balance all that athleticism, speed, size and talent. Vea could get through people, but Malloe needed to teach him how to get past people, too. He had to combat his height, which would sometimes be an advantage for quicker, smaller offensive linemen, with better pad level and distance from linemen. Vea had to improve his striking ability and get better footwork and proper hand placement so he could come off flatter toward his opponents.

"Because of his athleticism, he gets away with a lot of it sometimes on the field," Malloe said. "You're almost trying to work more of the fundamental parts to keep him balanced that way."

Dedication to his craft from Malloe transferred to Vea, who transformed into a legit NFL early-round prospect with his breakout 2016 season that saw him amass 39 tackles, 6.5 TFLs and 5 sacks.

The numbers were nice, but his physique still made him so intriguing, and last season's College Football Playoff semifinal meeting with Alabama in Atlanta showed him as much. Owning the biggest combination of height and weight on the team, Vea blended in more with the Crimson Tide. He looked more SEC than West Coast and registered four tackles and a sack in Washington's humbling 24-7 loss.

"When we got on the field, Vita was actually the one person that actually looked like he fit in," Malloe said.

"Everyone in our office is trying to find the next Vita Vea," he said.

And so is Vea.

The NFL was very enticing to Vea, and he knew his athleticism would carry him, but the second round felt like settling. Malloe told him he was a first-round talent, and with more time, he could be one of the first defenders taken a year later.

"I knew I wasn't ready for it," Vea said of the NFL. "I had way more to learn."

So Vea started watching film with Malloe at least twice a week, spending those 10 or 15 minutes doing most of the talking. Malloe stays quiet, forcing Vea to figure himself out, dissecting more faults than highlights. He's more bullish in practice, bringing game intensity and speed to each drill.

“His goal is to try and win every single rep," Malloe said. "The last time I heard anybody try to do that was when Steve Emtman was here."

That's mighty praise, considering Emtman was the No. 1 pick in the 1992 NFL draft after a near-unblockable career at Washington. But even he didn't have the speed of Vea, and no matter how much weight Vea puts on, Vea never loses his legs.

He tests the laws of physics with the way he zips around.

"It's incredible. It's not possible," roommate and lineman Greg Gaines said.

It is when you consider how Vea's football mind works. He studies and emulates linebackers and more slender pass-rushers. He wants to be more Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald than Vince Wilfork or Alan Branch. To keep his speed, he has made flexibility a priority, adding yoga to his regime.

Vea wants his tank of a body to move like a Ferrari and operate with the brain of a total tactician. He has come a long way in three years, but as he gears up for the teeth of what's essentially a contract year, Vea is proving to be more than just a phenom.

"As impressive as he is to watch," Malloe said, "it's more impressive to watch him work."