As a kid growing up in Hawaii, Hercules Mata’afa had to play every position on the football field, just like everybody else.

“It’s all backyard football out there,” said Mata’afa, from Lahaina, a smallish town on the island of Maui. “All the boys lived close to each other, so we would get a football and go to the park and play for hours.”

Playing every position, Mata’afa learned how to adapt, something that has served him well in the decade-plus since then as he tries to chase down his childhood dream.

Since signing with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent last year, Mata’afa would be the first to admit things haven’t gone according to plan. He switched positions twice last spring, dabbling at linebacker and defensive end, neither of which is his natural position. Then he tore an anterior cruciate ligament toward the end of OTAs, effectively ending his rookie year just as it began.

“It was the first time I went a full year without playing football (since my redshirt year at Washington State),” said Mata’afa, who stayed in the Twin Cities during the offseason to rehab. “I just stuck to the mindset that I’d be back for OTAs and hopefully show up and be a contributor on this team.”

While a lot can change in the coming months, Mata’afa appears to be well on his way. He’s already turned some heads throughout OTAs, including that of coach Mike Zimmer, while working as the three-technique on the defensive line.

“It’s good to be back,” Mata’afa said. “It’s been fun going out there and playing three-technique. That’s a spot I feel real comfortable at. I feel like gives me a chance to succeed in this league.”

That’s a position in which Mata’afa thrived during college, where he was named the 2017 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career at Washington State with 22.5 sacks and nearly 50 tackles for loss, using his explosiveness to wreak havoc in opposing backfields.

Still, his production wasn’t enough for Mata’afa to overcome his measurables. He went undrafted in large part to the fact that he weighed just 250 pounds coming out of college. As far as most NFL teams were concerned, there was no way someone at that weight would be able to contribute at the three-technique in the pros.

“It was hard to take because I had all my family there watching (the draft) with me,” Mata’afa said. “It was a couple of long days with them, and I never even heard my name.”

While most teams saw him as a linebacker, Mata’afa decided to sign with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent.

“They were the only team that was willing to give me a shot at playing defensive line if linebacker didn’t work out,” Mata’afa said. “I felt comfortable with that because in my heart I know I’m not a linebacker. As soon as I got my hand in the dirt, it felt natural for me.”

In the past year, Mata’afa has bulked up to 275 pounds. The extra weight, coupled with his natural ability to shoot gaps, make him a good bet to become an impact player.

“He’s grown leaps and bound since last year,” Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. “He’s so good at staying low. And that’s not a knock on him being short. He just plays with amazing leverage and he’s able to use that and then explode into the offensive lineman.”

As much as Zimmer has praised Mata’afa to this point — he called him the biggest surprise of OTAs last week and compared him to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins — he backtracked a little bit this week.

“Let’s not put him in Canton yet,” Zimmer joked. “He’s doing a nice job with the things we’re asking him to do. He’s got a great attitude. And it helps that (defensive line coach Andre Patterson) is an unbelievable teacher. The more that he can absorb the teaching Andre is giving, the better he’s going to be.”

There’s reason to believe it could end up working out for Mata’afa down the road.

Once upon a time the Vikings signed an undrafted defensive lineman passed over in the draft because of his lack of size. His name? John Randle.

Not that Mata’afa is comparing himself to Randle. As of right now, he’s just trying to making the team.

“There were a lot of people that said I’d never be able to play three-technique in this league,” Mata’afa said. “I’m just going out there and playing ball like I was taught back on the islands. Hopefully I’ll be able to prove people wrong.”

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