JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In the preseason, even the most overlooked athletes can make big plays. Undrafted and undersized rookie linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka received his opportunity to shine on a key fourth-down stop Thursday during the Jaguars' preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints.
During New Orleans' first drive of the second half, the Saints decided to attempt a conversion on fourth-and-5 from the Jacksonville 41-yard line. Saints backup quarterback Taysom Hill dropped back to pass but was almost immediately met by Motuapuaka, who blitzed straight into the quarterback. The eight-yard loss on the sack put the Jaguars' offense near midfield, setting up the team's second and final touchdown drive of the night.
“It was pretty cool,” Motuapuaka said following the game. “Just to come up with that big stop on fourth down. My biggest focus was kind of just coming out there and just executing my job, just making sure that I was on point with what I was supposed to do. Let everything take care of itself.”
Motuapuaka was known as a playmaker at Virginia Tech during his college football career. The 5-foot-11, 235-pound linebacker filled up the stat sheet on a weekly basis, producing 333 tackles (32.5 tackles for loss), 11.5 sacks, five interceptions and six forced fumbles during his four-year stint with the Hokies.
Despite his impressive college numbers, Motuapuaka was overlooked during the NFL draft. An undrafted rookie, Motuapuaka has needed to work extra hard to stand out as the Jaguars' third-string middle linebacker. He has gradually improved throughout training camp, as his strongest set of practices took place during the build-up to the preseason opener.
“I don’t know if anything has clicked but just watching [Myles Jack] and [Telvin Smith], how they approach every single day, how attentive to detail they are, just sitting back and observing those guys, that’s [helping me] take a big step up in my game,” Motuapuaka said. “Learning from them and just adding to my game.”
While Motuapuaka put forth a quality performance in his NFL preseason debut, the night didn't exactly start off the way he wanted it to. The plight of an undrafted rookie can sometimes lead to delayed opportunities.
“It was a little nerve-wracking at first,” Motuapuaka said of the game. “I didn’t get in until the second half. The first half I came out there, thinking I might have a chance to get in, but I didn’t get in, so it kind of went from a high to a low. But second half, they put me in. It was just a blessing to be out there, just to be where I am right now, and I kind of just went in and let it flow.”
Overall, Motuapuaka was just happy to play contact football again. He worked his entire life to get to this point and the sentiment of his first NFL game was greatly appreciated.
“It just felt like playing football again,” Motuapuaka said. “I kind of just felt like a kid. This is a sport that we were playing since we were little kids, so it was just a different setting, another level but still the same game. The game doesn’t change. It was fun though.”
While the familiarity of football helped Motuapuaka get adjusted to his first major challenge, there is still a lot more work to be done. The undrafted linebacker needs to continue to make plays when his number is called. He also needs to improve his production on a weekly basis in order to make the Jaguars' initial 53-man roster in September.
“Just continue to attack the details, learn the little details that I have to be on, little checks that I have to be on,” Motuapuaka said, regarding his need for improvement. “Other than that, just continue to do what I do. Continue to execute and continue to just learn from the film and accept coaching because there’s a lot of plays I left out there, so this is just the first step. I’ve just got to make sure the next game is even better.”
Follow Mike Kaye on Twitter: @Mike_E_Kaye.