One of the most intriguing players coming out of the 2023 Reese’s Senior Bowl was a former small-school linebacker, Marte Mapu out of Sacramento State.
In 41 games at Sacramento State, Mapu filled the stat sheets with 165 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 7 interceptions, and 22 pass deflections. With all of the plays on the ball, those stats may be surprising for a linebacker, but that’s because Mapu played all over the field during his time as a Hornet. In four seasons, he saw time playing cornerback, three different safety positions, and linebacker. His versatility and playmaking didn’t go unnoticed as he was named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and an FCS All-American in 2022.
After being a late call-up from the NFLPA Bowl, Mapu wasted no time making his presence known at the Senior Bowl. The 6025, 217 Mapu was flying around making plays in coverage as well as against the run, not shying away from the big-school competition. Mapu was particularly active in the American Team’s 9-on-7 drill, which is an old-school, smash-mouth session that focuses on running the ball in the interior. With that being known by both sides, physicality is key, and whoever brings more intensity usually wins.
Even though Mapu is undersized relative to the position, he was throwing around all of his 217 pounds to make his presence known in the drill, making numerous plays coming downhill.
During an interview after the second day of Senior Bowl practice, Mapu spoke to the media about how he viewed his play from the 9-on-7 period.
“I still obviously got a lot to work on. Not every rep was clean. Some of them were flashy. Some of them are something that I got to go and improve on the next day. So, you know, just improving consistency is the biggest point right now for me.”
While Mapu was known for his versatility, he has a strong understanding of the linebacker position and what to look for in the run game.
“For the most part, being in the box or just reading the box. You have triangle vision on the guards and the mesh points of the quarterback and the running back and kind of just where they’re gonna attack and how they’re gonna attack it. It’s just a lot about angles.”
Mapu continued, referencing how he stacks up with some of the guys from bigger-name schools.
“I’m not special compared to some of the rest of the guys. I just understand football well, just like the rest of them. And I have good instincts, like the rest of them.”
He also mentioned what helps him stand out.
“I feel like I just outwork a lot of people. Whether it’s mentally understanding the game or physically being able to do more things than a typical linebacker or more things than typical safety could do. I can cover, I can cover ground, and I hustle a lot. I’m smart, but I feel like a lot of the players are here for a reason, so they can do a lot of the same thing.”
Mapu’s humility was evident throughout his interactions with reporters. He showed a hard-working and never-satisfied attitude, which could make him a great fit for the blue-collar town of Pittsburgh. Mapu revealed that he has been a fan of the Steelers since childhood, and when asked about having the head coach, Mike Tomlin, watch him practice, he responded with,
“It feels good, but he’s not my coach yet. We’ll find out how good it feels in April.”
Mapu frequently referred to the upcoming NFL draft in April, indicating that the team that selects him will be making a smart choice. Despite coming from a small school and being relatively unknown before his standout performance at the Senior Bowl, Mapu has a chip on his shoulder and is eager to prove himself.
This chip is likely to have only increased after he was left off the list of the NFL Combine invites later this month.
When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mapu could be a viable option in the mid-to-late rounds of the NFL Draft. With uncertainty surrounding the linebacker position, due to the potential departures of unrestricted free agents, Devin Bush, Robert Spillane, and Marcus Allen, and the potential cap-casualty of Myles Jack, Mapu could provide much-needed athleticism and coverage skills for the team. Although he may not be an immediate starter, Mapu’s versatility and playmaking abilities would give the Steelers a talented player to potentially to mold into a three-down linebacker in the future.