Ford: Why keeping it simple is Big V's biggest job

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The Eagles' Halapoulivaati Vaitai stretches during practice Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.

Halapoulivaati Vaitai says he is asked to pronounce his first name "about 10 to 15 times a day, usually." His nature is such that he remains pleasant nevertheless. He smiles patiently and says in a soft voice that belies his 6-foot-6, 315-pound stature, "Hal-lah-poo-lee-VAH-tee."

His brothers, twins born just 11 months after him, are named Kevin and Will. They rarely have to pronounce their names for strangers. Vaitai's parents, Hakilivi and Shirley Vaitai, who moved from Tonga to the Fort Worth, Texas, area in the 1980s, honored the heritage of the South Pacific island monarchy with their first-born.

It would be a better story if halapoulivaati was a Polynesian word for "heart of a tiger" or "right tackle of the gods," but it is actually just the name of Hakilivi's second cousin.

"Doesn't really mean anything," Vaitai said.

Still, it is his name and he is proud of it and his roots, but he is equally happy that everyone simply calls him "Big V." It simplifies things, and heading into his first NFL start, the very first time he will even dress for an NFL regular-season game, Vaitai wants to keep things simple.

Vaitai, a rookie selected in the fifth round of the draft, will take over for Lane Johnson on Sunday against Washington. Johnson lost his appeal of a 10-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and is gone until late December. The Eagles had other options, but settled on Vaitai as the replacement.

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"It's a good opportunity and I'm going to take it," Vaitai said. "I'm already feeling it. I'm excited."

So excited that when he began practice with the first team this week, the guys on the other side of the line noticed.

"He got me," said Brandon Graham, who said he usually schools Vaitai. "I told him, 'You're still about 100 plays behind me.' But I give him this one."

Vaitai's chief attribute, at this point in his career, is his size. The height and weight measurements are impressive enough, but when he puts on cleats and a massive set of shoulder pads, well, his nickname is a good one.

"He's a quiet guy, but he's a different guy inside the white lines," said Brandon Brooks, who will line up next to him at right guard. "We just want him to play hard. We all make mistakes, not just young guys. He has a great aggressive nature when he comes off the ball."

Vaitai started as a tight end at Haltom (Texas) High School, but his coach moved him over one slot by his sophomore year and he has been a right tackle ever since. (Kevin and Will were the guards on the same line that season.) He was recruited to Texas Christian, the hometown team, and won all-Big 12 honors in both his junior and senior seasons. If all had gone according to plan for the Eagles, Johnson and left tackle Jason Peters would have taken every snap this season - they were on the field for all 275 offensive plays so far - and Vaitai might not have dressed all year. Instead, he got to call his parents earlier this week to relay the big news.

"This is a big moment for me. I'm taking a big step and this is my job now," Vaitai said. "I've got to keep the job."

Doing that is often more difficult than getting the job. His teammates say his progress from the start of training camp to now has been dramatic. Pass protection will be the biggest challenge, as defensive linemen and outside linebackers test him with veteran moves.

"He run blocks with good power at the point of attack," center Jason Kelce said. "On pass protection, if you get beat, don't get beat clean. Make them run over you. Nine times out of 10 you won't give up a sack, but when you get beat clean, then the quarterbacks start getting a little iffy that you're going to block him at all. I gave him the same advice I always give rookies: Just play. Don't overthink things."

Vaitai is trying to keep that in mind, even though he realizes this is a crucial juncture for both the team and for himself. Seasons and careers can be made or broken when offensive lines must be repaired.

"Calm down and just focus for four seconds each play. That's what Jason Peters tells me all the time," Vaitai said. "Trust your technique and you'll be fine."

Calming down isn't easy, nor is forgetting that the team will play in Arlington, Texas, in two weeks, only 14 miles from his hometown and his mother's cooking. If he gets a meal with the folks, it would be either roasted pig or octopus, which he reports does not taste like chicken.

The Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings are first on the menu, however, and they will make it their business to go after him. They will not care how to pronounce his name. They will merely pronounce him a weak link or a strong replacement.

Despite everyone's expressions of confidence, he could be either. You never know. But a lot is riding on the answer. It isn't far-fetched to say the Eagles' season could be determined by whether the offensive line can hold together. Halapoulivaati Vaitai, whose name isn't really the story, says everything will be fine. That would be the story.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports