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Mental development key for Benning Potoa’e

Lakes football coach Dave Miller once pulled Benning Potoa’e aside after a high school basketball game. All night, Potoa’e was getting the ball underneath the basket. And all night, he would immediately pass the ball back out.

Miller wanted to know why.

Potoa’e’s answer was simple: “What if I miss?”

“That’s the mentality you got to get away from,” Miller said. “You can’t be worried about missing. You just got to go for it. Even if you miss, you’re going to make most of them.”

The moment showed Miller how badly Potoa’e wanted to be successful, and how much pressure he put on himself. He’s a perfectionist, Miller said, and that’s mostly a strength. But when Potoa’e focuses too much on negative outcomes, it turns into a weakness.

“Once he got past that,” Miller said, “he just dominated.”

Miller first met Potoa’e when the Washington linebacker was in seventh grade, and he immediately knew Potoa’e was special. Miller had coached Potoa’e’s older brother, Sione — a former defensive tackle at UW — so he knew athletic talent ran in the family. Even as a middle schooler, Potoa’e was physically imposing.

But it was something else that really stood out.

“You could see the mentality that he just wanted to be great,” Miller said. “That attitude excites me more in kids when I meet them. Just that attitude of kids wanting to be great and wanting to be pushed.”

Potoa’e, a former four-star recruit, is now a redshirt junior at UW. Coming out of high school, he was considered by to be the No. 2 player in Washington in his class.

For Potoa’e, the recruiting process was about handling expectations. Not only was he highly ranked, he also had a successful older brother. The weight of those expectations could be difficult to handle, Miller said, especially because of Potoa’e’s personality.

He’s conscientious, Miller said, a people pleaser. Those qualities occasionally held him back. It’s why a big part of his development was simply learning to have some fun. The better Potoa’e got at that, Miller said, the better player he became.

“He’s so focused on, for lack of a better term, being perfect,” Miller said. “And none of us are perfect. I think he learned to just let it loose a little bit, not be so worried about being something that nobody can be.”

Miller sees the process repeating itself at the college level. After working through it in high school, it’s almost like Potoa’e had to start over at UW.

“I think he’s still working through that,” Miller said. “I think that some of that comes through your assignments and just being able to play fast.”

Potoa’e, too, said his mental development has been vital. During his time at UW, he’s learned how to play under pressure and handle the outside noise. The game has slowed down.

“I’m not panicking out there,” he said. “I’m not worried about one thing, the other thing, somebody else’s job.”

At the beginning of his college career, that wasn’t the case.

“I was worried about everybody else,” he said. “I was worried about different people telling me different things. I was mind-blown by all the information I was getting. Basically running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”

Senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven has watched Potoa’e’s growth up close. He was physically ready to play in the NFL the moment he stepped on campus, Burr-Kirven said. His mind just needed to catch up. To succeed college level, Potoa’e almost had to re-learn fundamental football.

“Over the past couple of years, I just watched him just mentally mature so much,” Burr-Kirven said. “He’s starting to understand the way that the game of football works at a much higher level than just trying to overpower dudes.

“He’s not just making a splash play here or there. He’s been a consistent guy where maybe you don’t see him jumping through the line making a tackle for loss every play, but you put on the tape and you see him setting the edge and making the plays that don’t get the glory but really make the defense run.”

There has been physical growth for Potoa’e at UW. He’s stronger now, and he’s in better condition, too. But the biggest steps have been taken mentally, and he takes an active role in that process.

He watches film. Not just his own, but also NFL and college players he admires. And Potoa’e doesn’t just study how they play. He watches how they handle themselves off the field, how they speak to the media. He wants to understand everything about the process that makes them elite, and then mirror it.

Both Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack are at the top of Potoa’e’s list. They’re there for the obvious reasons, sure. But there are other factors, too.

“They don’t stop,” Potoa’e said. “They never stop. You would think, they’re human, they get tired. They definitely don’t show it. They’re non-stop going. They’re relentless.

“That’s something that has to be in your mindset, in your heart, when you’re trying to get to the quarterback. It’s not easy to get to the quarterback. And whether they get it the first play or the the last play, they’re not stopping. That’s something I love about them.”

Potoa’e has had a solid career with the Huskies. He’s played in 39 games, including all 13 this season. He’s recorded 38 tackles this year, and that number has gone up every season he’s played.

Still, there’s potential waiting to be fulfilled.

Miller believes another step forward is coming. He once again likened Potoa’e’s path at UW to his development in high school. Everything seemed to come together for Potoa’e during his senior season at Lakes. That’s why Miller expects the same thing to happen at UW.

This season, Miller said the big plays have come in spurts for Potoa’e. Every year, there have been more of them. Now, it’s about making those plays more consistently. Miller hopes to see the beginning of that progress when the Huskies face Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

“I just think he’s starting to finish more and make that final push toward making the big plays he made for us,” Miller said. “I think it’s right on track.”

Potoa’e has similar goals for the remainder of his career.

“I want more sacks,” he said. “I want all the sacks. I want to make more plays, contribute to the team, just do my job at a very high level.”

Senior linebacker Tevis Bartlett called Potoa’e a “freak of nature.” His pure athletic ability, Bartlett said, is eye-popping. But during his time with the Huskies, Potoa’e has also become an every-down player.

“You go back and watch his redshirt freshman film to now, it’s unbelievable the difference,” Bartlett said. “Night and day. Especially since I got moved to inside for most of the season, he’s been the one vocal leader for that group.”

Potoa’e took on leadership roles throughout middle school and high school. His father is in the military, he said, so it’s always come naturally to him. It seemed right, then, that a major step in his progression this season was filling that role with the Huskies.

“It’s really just buying into the culture,” he said. “The culture here is really just helping one and another. Taking all the other guys in, taking them under your wing, showing them the ropes. Taking them and buying into the culture so it continues to go on for a while.”

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