Marte Mapu on the loose: Sac State All-American stopper impresses in Senior Bowl practices

Jon Austria/The Coloradoan via AP

Andy Thompson receives updates and checks the film. The Sacramento State coach smiles at all of it, and he leads the charge on the Marte Mapu bandwagon.

Mapu has been on the loose, Thompson reports, ransacking backfields in Senior Bowl practices in Alabama. He is the first player in Hornets Division I football era to make this prestigious game and the just the second. Lineman Mike Black represented Sacramento State in the 1986 Senior Bowl, blocking for guys such as Bo Jackson.

The Senior Bowl remains a who’s who of senior stars from across the country. Practice sessions equate to job auditions in helmets and shoulder pads. The game is set for 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the University of South Alabama and will be televised on the NFL Network.

Mapu has made plays in contact practices and drills as a safety or linebacker, closing in on runners with thunderous intentions. Thompson saw a lot of this sort of activity in person. He was the Hornets defensive coordinator from 2019-2022 before taking over as head coach for Troy Taylor, who is now heading the Stanford program. Thompson saw what Mapu could do in practice, such as playing cornerback, three safety positions and linebacker, and then Thompson reveled in watching one of the program’s all-time great stoppers in his element in Big Sky Conference games.

A native of Hawthorne of Los Angeles County, Mapu was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and an FCS All-American in 2022.

“Proud would be the word I’d use on Marte,” Thompson said. “He works so hard. He was on the phone with me asking questions on what scouts might ask him. He wanted to be prepared. He was training for weeks in Florida to get ready for this. This means a lot to him. Everything he gets, he’s earned. He’s worked his tail off. I’m not surprised at all that he’s shown well because he’s so versatile, smart and talented.”

Mapu has good size at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. He has a feel for the game, Thompson said, and he wanted to learn about as many defensive positions as he could during his Hornets time to best understand the entire defense.

“He can play linebacker, the nickel spot, anywhere, and in the NFL, they love that,” Thompson said. “I really think he has a great future. He’s a true student of the game. He’s a great athlete. He makes plays.”

Mapu rarely left the field in 2022 for the Hornets. Coaches valued his impact too much to let him sit much. He raced down on kickoffs. He was on punt returns. He was on the edge to try and rush in and block field goals and point-after touchdown attempts. Mapu logged six seasons with the Hornets, including the lost COVID season of 2020 and the bonus extra season for college athletes due to that lost campaign, and he overcame injuries that stalled his early Hornets career.

Along the way, Mapu earned his degree in sociology and was working on his master’s degree.

With his green Hornets helmet, Mapu has blended right in at Senior Bowl practices under the watchful eye of a horde of NFL coaches and scouts. Thompson regularly checks in for updates via social media or livestream links.

“He was tackling a guy from Nebraska, then he’s next to a guy from LSU — the best of the best,” Thompson said. “It shows you that you can do everything you want at a school like Sac State. You can be a great player anywhere and people will find you. He never left. He stayed right here.”

Mapu isn’t just trying to make a name for himself. He’s an FCS player surrounded by Power-5 players from FBS schools, trying to show that a player is a player, regardless of college level.

“I want to show what I can do,” Mapu said in a recent post-practice interview with media covering the event. “I want to show that I can play football. I’ve been telling scouts that my versatility allows me to do all kinds of things. I never played true linebacker, but here I am now. I feel like I can do anything. I want to show I can check all the boxes. There are questions of what I can or can’t do, coming from an FCS program. But I’m ready.”