He’s had one of the stranger careers in Eagles history.
Big V has been benched, he’s started in a Super Bowl and everything in between.
On Sunday in Washington, he’ll start at the same position in the same stadium against the same team he made his ill-fated NFL debut three years ago.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai started at right tackle in place of suspended Lane Johnson when the Eagles faced the Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., in October of 2016 with disastrous consequences.
Doug Pederson and Jeff Stoutland decided to leave Vaitai by himself and not give him any help, and Ryan Kerrigan took advantage with 2 1/2 of the Redskins’ five sacks in a 27-20 game. The Eagles didn’t score an offensive touchdown and managed just 239 yards of offense.
You’re excited for your first game and you do really bad,” Vaitai recalled. “You want to do good your first game but you end up doing worse. All the guys (after that) told me just calm down, just be yourself, and that’s what I’ve been doing. Be myself and just learn along the way.
Vaitai wound up replacing Jason Peters at left tackle for the stretch run and playoffs in 2017 and held his own. He’s only started one game since and following Andre Dillard’s unsuccessful attempt at right tackle against the Seahawks, he currently backs up both guards and both tackles.
With Johnson dealing with a high ankle sprain, Vaitai makes his first start since last year’s home loss against the Cowboys, when he also started at right tackle.
This time Kerrigan won’t be out there. He’s on Injured Reserve with a calf injury. But Big V will still have his hands full with a formidable Redskins defensive front.
That was years ago,” Vaitai said. “A lot has happened over the years. … All the ups and downs. Gained a lot of knowledge. I’m excited to play these guys again. … I wish (Kerrigan) was coming back. I love playing him.
It’s not easy to do what Big V is doing.
He gets a few reps here and there during the week, but he’s got to be ready to go in at a moment’s notice if either tackle or either guard goes down.
Just trying to prepare myself like I’ve been doing the last couple years, get ready for multiple positions because you never know when you’re going to get called,” he said. “When I get ready during the week I try to train myself like I’m a starter because you never know where you’re going to go. Left tackle, left guard, right guard or right tackle. I’m just trying to get ready. … Trying to get my mind right.
Even this week, with first-team reps at right tackle, Vaitai is still preparing to play the other positions because you never know how the line will be shuffled if injuries start piling up.
And with this team, they always seem to pile up.
“I’ve been in this situation numerous times,” he said. “During the week still try to train like I’m the starter. Starting this week mainly focusing on right tackle, but if anything happens, make sure I’m good at guard and all that stuff.”
Vaitai is now 26 years old and in his fourth season. Sunday's must-win against the lowly Skins will be his 20th career start, including the 2017 playoffs.
We ask a lot of V,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “He fills in at a bunch of spots in the line. And kind of an unsung hero. And I thought he did really well holding up in there the other night when Lane went down. And he's prepared at right tackle. He's prepared at the guard spots. He's prepared at left tackle. So he's prepared to go in the game when his number's called. The guys have a lot of confidence in him. He's got good strength. Understands exactly how we want it done. When he has the opportunity to go out there and practice for a full week knowing that he's going to play I think for anybody, regardless what your job is, there's a certain level of comfort in that as well.
Vaitai was drafted in 2016 with a 5th-round draft pick the Eagles acquired in the summer of 2015 from the Steelers in exchange for Brandon Boykin, who hasn’t played since 2015.
Big V isn’t under contract beyond this year, so at this point he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this spring.
It will be interesting to see what happens. Big V may be content to stay with the Eagles as a backup, and they’d be happy to have him.
But he’s also playing on a four-year 5th-round rookie contract and certainly could be looking for a starting opportunity, which he won’t get here.
Right now I’m not worried about that,” he said. “Right now I’m just focused on this week. It’s the most important game. All that stuff can take care of itself in the offseason. I can just block it out.
Good idea. The Eagles need the Super Bowl version of Big V Sunday and definitely not the 2016 version.
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