LARAMIE, Wyo. — Things could’ve gone much worse Saturday for Nela Lolohea.
Per defensive ends coach A.J. Cooper’s tally, the Wyoming junior defensive end played “two to three times” as many snaps as usual against Air Force in a 35-26 win Oct. 8 after starter Carl Granderson left in the first quarter with a season-ending ACL tear.
But Lolohea had been preparing for this opportunity.
“What would have happened if I’m like, ‘OK, I know I get less plays’?” Lolohea said. “... If I would’ve went in not knowing what to do, if I didn’t listen in meetings and practice hard when I got my reps in practice against this offense, I think it would’ve been bad. It would’ve made me look bad. I would’ve let my team down.”
Lolohea’s path to the field wasn’t an easy one. He didn’t transfer from El Camino (Calif.) Community College in time to participate in Wyoming’s spring camp this year.
“That’s always a pretty steep learning curve,” coach Craig Bohl said. “Everything from conditioning to understanding the schemes, how to practice and how Division-I football is.”
All after spending two years on an LDS mission in Nicaragua, which he wasn’t able to take until two years after graduating high school at the age of 17. Now, in his first year at Wyoming, the 24-year-old Lolohea is the oldest Cowboy on the roster.
That maturity makes him an easy player to coach, Cooper said.
“He’s not that much younger than me,” Cooper said with a laugh. “No, you can tell that he brings a certain level of maturity. He’s a guy that’s gone on a mission, that’s experienced things outside of football that I think can give him perspective that an 18-year-old freshman doesn’t have.
“And that’s certainly, when you bring a junior-college (player) into our program, because we’re not going to take four, five, six of those guys every year, the first thing that we’re looking for is their ability to add depth or competition, but the second thing is how much maturity they’re going to bring. And I think that’s been a positive with him.”
Although, being both the oldest player and a first-year player does come with a downside.
“I think one problem I had being an older person, I worry too much about so many things, messing up and stuff, and it just kind of kicks you off track on some things,” Lolohea said. “I can’t overthink a lot of stuff. I had to remind myself, like, I’m playing college football. I took a long route and just go with the flow of it.”
It didn’t show against Air Force as Lolohea proved a suitable replacement, despite never having played against an option offense before.
“Really, it gave me a lot of confidence, even though it wasn’t like playing against a spread offense,” he said. “It really helped me out a lot.”
Six games into his Division-I career, Lolohea is more comfortable than ever with Wyoming’s defense. That’s big for the Cowboys, considering he’ll be called upon to help fill the void left by Granderson, who leads Wyoming in sacks and tackles for loss.
“I’m starting to get the flow of the defense, and I’m starting to play a little faster out there,” Lolohea said. “Knowing my job more and knowing what I do, my assignment. Everything’s coming along pretty well.”