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How Washington State offensive lineman Esa Pole swapped self-doubt for confidence

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PULLMAN — Somewhere in the horde of offensive linemen, in the middle of a collection of giant young men dressed in red practice jerseys, Esa Pole raised his voice. The Washington State offensive lineman, a 6-foot-7 hulk of a man, wanted his teammates to stop thinking — to kill hesitation.

Go now, think later, Pole told his fellow linemen. Go now. Go full speed.

As Pole and his teammates baked under the Thursday morning sun, running drill after drill during their second practice of fall camp, a certain realization might have set in for keen eyes: This guy directing his teammates was not a returning starter, not a veteran, not even a player with anything resembling a meaningful role locked up.

It was Pole, a junior college transfer taking part in his first fall camp at Washington State. His story is intriguing for about a thousand different reasons: He only picked up football some two years ago. His older brother, Toni, played at WSU. He tried basketball when he was younger, only to realize his frame would be more useful in football, and now he’s vying for a starting gig on a Power 5 club.

The craziest part of all might be the reality that only a short time ago, Pole would have killed for the confidence to encourage his teammates like he did on Thursday.

During his time at Chabot College, a junior college in his hometown of Hayward, Calif., Pole always had the physical tools. He stood 6 foot 7. He weighed around 320 pounds. He had the body of an offensive lineman, and considering he only started playing football in 2021, it was remarkable how quickly he learned the position.

What didn’t come as naturally to Pole was confidence. Self-doubt weighed him down like an anchor. He questioned, hesitated, wondered if he belonged around teammates who had been playing a decade longer. None of that changed when he came to WSU, where he faced all-conference edge rushers Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson in spring ball this year, so Pole kept searching for aplomb.

“I didn’t really come in prepared mentally,” Pole said. “The biggest thing that (my brother) always told me every play, every time I step up or line up or even during workouts and lifts, he’s always said, I’m in my head.”

“I think there’s moments where you have a little bit of uncertainty, and that creates hesitation,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “Hesitation kills performance.”

Pole kept competing, kept coming to practice and fighting for a job on the offensive line. “But it was more the battle within myself that was definitely the biggest struggle for me,” Pole said.

When WSU’s spring practices ended, the Cougars started holding team meetings. The theme of those: “I can do hard things.” Strength and conditioning coach Ben Iannacchione stressed that to his guys: You can do hard things.

“And I really just had to think to myself, it’s like, I’ve done hard things,” Pole said. “So it doesn’t change now that I’m at a Division-I school. If I can do hard things at any level, I can do hard things.”

The Cougars kept holding team meetings. Soon the themes changed. At one, Dickert played a video and delivered a message to his players.

You run this (thing).

So across these first two fall practices, when he isn’t actively running a drill or blocking a teammate, Pole will repeat it in his head. I run this (thing). Then sometimes out loud. I run this (thing). Sometimes with emphasis on the I: *Eye* run this (thing).

“If I was mic’d up,” Pole laughed, “they would probably think I was crazy.”

Now Pole will get a serious look at the left tackle spot, where he’s competing with redshirt sophomore Christian Hilborn, a 6-foot-5 athlete who started all 13 games last season. Will Pole get snaps at that spot? He says he isn’t worried about that — he doesn’t see Hilborn as someone to beat, only a teammate to encourage, and that’s beside the point anyway.

Starter or not, Pole has earned a chance to play left tackle for Washington State, which is the type of sentence that might have sounded like Russian to Pole just three years ago. How quickly things change.

“We as players like to focus on the physical things,” Pole said. “How we can get stronger, how we can get faster, how we can be more physical. But at the end of the day, if you don’t control and really attack that mental aspect of the game, it can be really, really challenging for anybody.”



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