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THE ULTIMATE SIGN OF STEPHEN PAEA'S PROWESS IS NOT THE MORRIS trophy he was given as the Pac-10's best defensive lineman last season, nor is it his surefire candidacy for the Nagurski Trophy as the nation's best defensive player this year. It is not even the video on YouTube that shows him bench-pressing 225 pounds an astonishing 44 times, 12 more reps than former Nebraska Cornhusker Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 pick in last April's NFL draft.
No, Paea's status as an elite player is best exemplified by the freedom he is given in Oregon State's defense. No matter the call from the sideline, no matter the down and distance, if the 6' 1", 311-pound Paea wants to change his assignment, he can.
"To start, he has special ability. His quickness, his explosiveness, his strength is the best of any defensive tackle we have coached," Oregon State coach Mike Riley says. "Because of his abilities we give him some latitude. That is the essence of coaching, I think. Take a guy with special ability and adapt to him."
Opposing offenses have had to adapt to Paea since he arrived in Corvallis, in 2008. Born in New Zealand but raised in Tonga until he was 16 years old, Paea played football only in his senior season at Timpview High in Provo, Utah. He then enrolled at Snow College in Utah, but he redshirted for the '06 season and then played sparingly in '07, seeing only about five or six snaps a game. Still, the Beavers' defensive line coach Joe Seumalo saw something special in Paea and offered him a scholarship.
Almost immediately Paea was a force, requiring even the best offensive lines to double-team him. During Oregon State's memorable Thursday-night upset of then No. 1 USC in 2008, he forced a key fourth-quarter interception by pushing USC right guard Zack Heberer into quarterback Mark Sanchez. In the '08 Sun Bowl against Pittsburgh he made four tackles and required so much attention from the Panthers' interior linemen that it freed the Beavers' defensive ends to sack Pittsburgh quarterbacks five times in a 3-0 victory.
No longer a secret in 2009, Paea still led the team in tackles for loss (8½) and forced a single-season school-record four fumbles. "I had to get used to the double teams," Paea says. "Nobody likes to get doubled; when I see a one-on-one now, it is a blessing. But knowing defensive coordinators have to plan for me means others are going to get free."
Paea's influence is one reason Riley believes the Beavers' defense can overcome a lack of depth along the defensive line as well as inexperience at linebacker, where two starters must be found after the surprise spring departure of starting inside linebacker David Pa'aluhi, who left school and returned to his home in Hawaii for personal reasons.
"We've got to develop some guys, but we have good ends, and with Stephen on the inside we have the foundation to build on," Riley says.
Paea likely would have been, at worst, a second-round pick in April's draft, and he contemplated leaving school early. Instead he seized the opportunity to bring Oregon State a title in a wide-open Pac-10 and also to better his draft stock.
"If I went to another school, like USC, the hype for me would be more, but I don't know if I would get used in the same way at a school like that; probably not," Paea says. "For me, Oregon State was meant to be."