POCATELLO — When Paea Moala’s college football career was over, he broke down in the home locker room at Holt Arena.
His last game was a 26-13 loss to Weber State, but it wasn’t the defeat that crushed the big linebacker — it was that he couldn’t play football anymore.
Even now, Moala admits flatly that “being fresh out of football, it kind of sucks for me,” but the two-year starter for Idaho State now has a new outlet that’s gotten him back on the field — helping the Bengals as a graduate assistant coach.
“I really have the passion for football,” Moala said. “From our last game versus Weber State, I really broke down. I really had no direction in life after football was done. But then coming back here in the summer for my internship, I had to do an internship, and I was just sticking with the coaches ... and now I have sort of a direction in my life right now, so it’s to be a coach, and that’s what I’m rolling with.”
Moala is one of a few familiar faces still roaming the sidelines at the ICCU Practice Field this fall, only sporting a polo shirt and shorts instead of pads and a helmet.
Tanner Gueller is the graduate assistant on offense a year after finishing out his stellar career as a three-year starter at quarterback for the Bengals, and former wide receiver Hagen Graves is also back for his second year as an assistant.
Being a graduate assistant, or a GA, as they’re commonly referred to, is the most efficient way for former players to break into coaching.
For some players, like Graves, it’s a path that they’ve considered for a while.
“I started helping out with the camps probably after my sophomore year, maybe my freshman year, just helping out with the (youth) camps and stuff,” Graves said. “And right away I was like, ‘Oh yeah, (coaching) is what I want to do.’ Either at the high school or college level, but now I want to be at the college level.”
Gueller has a similar story.
“I would say (I started thinking about it) when coach (Rob) Phenicie became the head coach,” Gueller said. “We had a really good relationship, Hagen and I, with coach Phenicie as a position coach ... and he was really good with us about teaching us a lot of things that we didn’t know before. And being around him, and then all the staff and the guys that he brought in, it just kind of clicked, like man, I love this, I just want to stick around as long as possible.”
For others like Moala, it’s something that they turn to only when it’s clear that their playing career is no more.
The linebacker, who had 70 tackles and earned a third-team all-Big Sky spot in 2018, thought he had a spot with a team in Germany after his college year was over, but that fell through after the team took the money that was allocated for his plane ticket and gave it to another player.
Working with the coaching staff at Idaho State was a pale substitute, but at least it was an opportunity to stay around the game.
All three graduate assistants said that they had similar issues with transitioning from a player to a coach, which makes sense. One year, you’re joking around with your teammates on the sidelines. The next, you’re expected to be an authority figure towards those same players.
“For me (the hardest thing) was just keeping my mouth shut more on the sideline,” Gueller said. “I like to have fun, and as a player you get the opportunity to kind of BS with the guys a little bit more on the sideline and that sort of thing, but on the other side of things now, you have to make sure everyone’s staying focused all the time.”
For some, that can cause a little whiplash.
“All the young guys, the new freshmen, they all call me coach Moala,” said Moala. “And I’m just trying to get used to the whole coach Moala thing. I just try to tell them like, just call me Paea for now. I’ll work my way into coach once I’m like 30 or something.”
If he stays with it that long, it’s likely he’ll have gained a promotion or two on the way. Because being a graduate assistant is the most common way to break into coaching, almost every head coach was a GA once.
And, eventually, it will stop being a way to mitigate the pain of a playing career ending.
“When you’re out actually playing, it’s a whole different feeling than just getting to watch,” Graves said. “Other than that, I still get psyched up for gameday, still get excited for practice. Still the same emotions, but just not out there on the field.”
A full crew of kitted-out referees added to the atmosphere at ISU’s fourth fall practice Saturday. Although the Bengals aren’t yet in full pads and couldn’t properly scrimmage, Phenicie said that the zebras did have a purpose.
“They have preseason too, and it helps them get going in with their mechanics and all that, but it also helps us to clean up little mistakes that we’re making,” Phenicie said. “We’ll have them out next week and the week after that, and it’s good for both sides.”
- Junior TJ Togiai and senior Kainoa Fuiava have been the two constants on the Bengals’ three-man defensive line, where Togiai has been playing both inside and outside. When he goes outside, Raemo Trevino has been taking a lot of nose tackle reps. When Togiai is at the nose, sophomore Gilbert Varela has probably been the most consistent third wheel, but Terrance Jones, Hunter Eborn, Majerle Taugavau and Garrett Crane are also getting looks. Because of the sheer numbers, it’s likely that this position battle is one that’s far from sorting itself out.
“TJ’s a solid, solid player,” Phenicie said about Togiai. “Yeah, it’s tough. We’ve had some good nose guards, and TJ has to able to keep the centers and guards from getting up to the next level.”
- It might have been due to practicing in the midday heat, but for the first time in fall camp, a couple scuffles broke out among offensive and defensive players. Whatever the reason, none escalated beyond some shoving and an instantaneous rush to the scene from players in the vicinity.
- Tanner Conner continued to impress at wide receiver with a brilliant adjustment to and diving catch of a poorly thrown ball. Conner, a junior, has drawn eyes at camp with his size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and speed (he finished second in the 100-meter dash at the 2019 Big Sky Track and Field Championships with a time of 10.51). Conner, who had five catches for 79 yards last year, has been locked in as the third receiver with DeMonte Horton still out, and if he continues to progress, his physical tools could make him the best third wide receiver in the conference.
- It was an install day for both the offense and defense, which Phenicie said was “kind of like a meshing, a big clash of weather fronts.” That led to some sloppiness on both sides, especially among the quarterbacks, neither of whom were as sharp as they were Friday. Matt Struck led off team sessions with a great deep ball to Michael Dean, who seems to catch at least one home run ball every practice, but was later picked off twice by Kody Graves lurking in underneath coverage. Gunnar Amos also hit a long touchdown — this one to Isaiah Walter on what might have been a broken coverage — but was up and down throughout.
- Lastly, starting center Dallen Collins’ snapping issues have gotten so bad that redshirt freshman Terron Carey took some reps with the first string on Saturday. Carey, from Miami, is listed at 6-feet, 270 pounds. He also airmailed at least one snap in his time with the starters, but has overall looked more consistent than Collins, whose issues have forced Phenicie to try some unorthodox remedies.
"It’s funny, because for three years, we hadn’t had anything with Dallen,” Phenicie said. “A couple days ago, I tried to exorcise the demons, I went up to him, said, okay, boom, it’s gone, and that didn’t work obviously. So today I bet him a Mountain Dew, if he could have a good day, I’ll buy him a jug of Mountain Dew. ... We’ll be okay. I don’t know what it was, but I have a snapping protocol for a guy that’s never shotgun snapped before that you can teach a guy, so we started that today, and we’ll do that until it gets cleared up, we’ll do that every day and just get him out of the shanks.”