August 23, 2017

Wachusett alum Tyler Catalina’s journey toward an NFL roster spot

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Twitter / Tyler Catalina

Tyler Catalina, a former Wachusett star, sees game action in the 2017 preseason with the Washington Redskins.

[UPDATE: According to reports and social media, Tyler Catalina has secured a spot on the Washington Redskins’ initial 53-man roster. This story was first published on Aug. 23.]

It seems unthinkable that after playing at two high schools, two colleges, going undrafted and switching positions, Tyler Catalina has a legitimate chance to earn an NFL roster spot.

But that’s just where the Wachusett Regional alum currently finds himself, playing guard for the Washington Redskins, and running with the backups during the team’s preseason games. Along the way, Catalina has been doubted at every step, and yet here he is, perhaps only a solid preseason performance away from being an NFL player.

“He definitely took the scenic route, that’s for sure,” Catalina’s brother Tony jokes.

Twitter / Tony Catalina

Tyler Catalina signs his contract as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Redskins.

“I’ve played in so many systems, on so many teams, that I think I can adjust to anything at this point,” Catalina said of his first few weeks in the NFL. “It just is what it is. I’ve got to keep working and showing the coaches I can handle anything they throw at me.”

The coaches, it seems, have seen something from Catalina, who is in position to vie for a backup role on the Redskins offensive line, particularly after a recent injury to starting center Spencer Long, according to ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim.

Catalina wasn’t always ready to handle huge workloads. Despite starring for Wachusett as a junior and senior, the 6-foot-6, 325-pound offensive lineman admits he didn’t take things inside the classroom as seriously as he should have. Academic eligibility questions scared away most large schools, so Catalina chose to spend a post-graduate year at the Kent School in Connecticut.

While he did get his grades in order, many of the “big boys” were still concerned, and Rhode Island, a Division I Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Div. I-AA) program, emerged as Catalina’s best choice.

“I always thought that just playing football was good enough,” Catalina said. “I started working much harder in the classroom once I got to (Kent), because I realized that, if I wanted to play D1, I had to take care of my grades.”

After redshirting in 2012, Catalina forced his way into the starting lineup for Rhody in 2013. Only a redshirt freshman, Catalina started every game at right tackle and earned a reputation as one of the Colonial Athletic Conference’s toughest linemen. The following year, Catalina moved over to left tackle, a position considered by many the most important on the offensive line, and the spot where you usually protect your quarterback’s blind side.

He received third-team all-conference honors during his first year at left tackle, then was named second-team all-conference during his junior season. During that time, Catalina earned his degree, and became eligible to transfer and play immediately as a graduate student elsewhere.

He took that opportunity and ran with it, going from Rhode Island to Georgia, which is in arguably the best and most competitive conference in college football, the Southeastern Conference.

Twitter / Tony Catalina

Tyler Catalina was a starter at left tackle last season for the SEC heavyweight Georgia Bulldogs.

Catalina started all 12 of Georgia’s regular season games at left tackle, and after battling a head injury, returned to play extensively in the Bulldogs’ 2016 Liberty Bowl win over Texas Christian. While he ultimately went undrafted, Catalina earned a spot on Washington’s preseason roster. However, the Redskins saw yet another position change in his future.

Washington moved Catalina to right guard, hoping to take advantage of his physical strength and mean streak inside. Thus far, the returns have been mostly positive, with Catalina surprising some people and running with the second unit.

As the battle for roster spots intensifies, Catalina finds himself right in the mix — and on head coach Jay Gruden’s radar

“That’s what it is, a battle,” Gruden told USA Today’s Redskins Wire last week. “Arie [Kouandjio] has been here and done a nice job. … Catalina we got as a free agent from Georgia and he’s done some good things and obviously (Kyle) Kalis is from Michigan.

“Catalina’s played a little bit of left guard, right guard and tackle. We’re trying to find out if he’s versatile enough to do that, which is important.”

The Redskins next play the Cincinnati Bengals at 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 27, at FedEx Field. The game is scheduled to air on FOX (Boston 25).

It was far from a surprise for Sean Smith, the owner and director of operations for Exceed Sports Performance and Fitness in Westborough. Smith has worked with some of the area’s best athletes over the years, and says he saw Catalina as an NFL player when he started training at Exceed.

“When Ty came in, we would give him tips, and he would just go for it,” Smith said. “We would tell him something in the summer, then we would see him again after the season, and you could tell he had applied what we taught him. His squat form, his technique, whatever it was.

“I’ve been around sports management and great athletes, and I thought, ‘This kid can play in the league.’ I thought, with some hard work, we can help him get there.”

Even if Catalina doesn’t make it in the league, he acknowledges that football has already given him so much. He earned his degree from URI, and is in the process of getting his master’s in Adult Education from Georgia.

Twitter / Tony Catalina

Tyler Catalina is playing well enough to be in the mix for a Redskins roster spot.

Those achievements really stand out to current St. Peter-Marian head football coach Justin McKay. Back when he was the offensive line coach at Wachusett, McKay formed a special bond with Catalina, and the two remain close.

“Every step of the way, Tyler has refused to listen to what people say he can and will be,” McKay said. “People used to say that he wasn’t bright enough to go to college, or that he wasn’t good enough to play D1, and he keeps proving people wrong.

“I had him as a student as well, and even when he wasn’t getting the grades, he would want to talk to me about current events, and other things going on. You could see the potential. It was just about him applying it.”

Apply it he has, and now Catalina sits on the verge of a potentially life-changing moment.

“When we were kids, we would always talk about (the NFL),” his brother Tony said. “And now to be here, it’s crazy.”

“I know it’s cliche, but I really haven’t had any time to relax,” Tyler said. “I’m working so hard. Maybe when things calm down I’ll be able to take it all in and appreciate it, but right now, I’m grinding.”

Joe Parello is a deputy editor and cofounder of SuiteSports.com. He also hosts “The Local Sports Lunchbox” at noon Thursdays on WPKZ 105.3-FM and 1280-AM.

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