It was just a throwaway line to a USC insider before practice the other day. Stevie Tu'ikolavatu changes things big-time for this team, we said.
"He changes everything," was the response back. Everything. With the emphasis on "everything." Although it's not just Stevie. Toss converted O-lineman Khaliel Rodgers into that hopper as well.
But our inside guy wouldn't stop there. About Stevie, the 25-year-old married grad student transfer from Utah, the solid block of a nose tackle who packs right around 325 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, is much more than USC bargained for. They knew he had that great pad level and low center of gravity. And he was strong as heck.
What they didn't realize, what no one realized, was how good his feet were. How quick his hands were. How he could get to the quarterback on his own. No help needed. So many good veteran D-linemen at Utah, it was hard to stand apart despite some decent numbers there.
We think of how those turnaround Pete Carroll teams did that with All-American Shaun Cody, who could hold the line of scrimmage against anyone -- and get to the QB on his own. Ed Orgeron loved that about Shaun. No help needed. He'd get there when you most needed him to.
Well, Stevie is cut from that same cloth. He's not just that immovable object. The kid -- we kid -- Stevie brings a maturity to the D-line room that has a whole different sense of itself now. While we haven't been able to talk to Stevie yet, we know how motivated he is to show what he can do after a two-year Mormon mission and as a grad student in aging studies who is on his way to the NFL. He decided that USC was the place for him to do that.
"Ready to get back to work, FIGHT ON" was Stevie's June 17 tweet saying he was on his way to USC.
Young, inexperienced and without Kenny Bigelow after his spring ACL surgery and maybe a full-time Noah Jefferson with his back issues, USC might have been the exactly right place for him to have an impact even if those two were here.
That's because of the presence of Clancy Pendergast and his aggressive defensive philosophy of playing on the other team's line of scrimmage, something we see playing out every day in Fall Camp. Although maybe more so once Stevie showed how quickly he could get from here to there.
And while the depth of top-line D-line talent at Utah might not have reflected it with two others ahead of him on the Utes' depth chart, Stevie did record 28 tackles with two sacks and four fumble recoveries. "Plenty capable," the Salt Lake City Tribune called him.
Capable of changing some things about this USC team. With Stevie in there, you can do more with those quick, experienced or big, young and athletic linebackers behind them. There's also this. No more talk inside the program of just how many points this team would have to score to beat the kinds of big, powerful athletic running attacks on this schedule.
And then along came Khaliel, wanting to contribute any way he could and volunteering to go to defense after playing guard and starting at center with a couple of injured shoulders last fall. They list Khaliel at 315 pounds although the 6-foot-3 junior looks and plays bigger.
But then there's this, something commented on by none other than Colin Cowherd Saturday when he learned Khaliel had gone over to defense. "I remember him from offense last year," Colin said. "He's violent."
Yep, Colin got that right. Low center of gravity. Quick-twitch muscle guy. Disruptive as heck. Forces an offensive line that should be pretty good this season to be good at practice. And he's another veteran on the D-front, only one with nine career starts (six at center, three at guard). And he's healthy.
And in a D-line room of young guys, he gives Stevie someone to talk to other than the coaches. Because this is Khaliel's chance as well. When you see these two in there together, as you did on occasion Saturday, you start thinking of one of those decade-ago USC lines. Or a top SEC line today.
Maybe not quite the depth. But the size, strength, seniority and seriousness, it's all there.
Everything a big-time program needs up front. Everything you need to slug it out with the big boys.
And pretty much everything USC didn't have there less than two months ago.
"Is this team, especially this defense, in a place where you didn't expect it to be, Clay Helton was asked after Saturday's practice.
"Yes, sir," Clay said, "especially today" the way the defense went after the offense at the goal line and pretty much everywhere else.
Showing that he's a coach for all his teams, former quarterback and offensive coordinator Clay gave away his head coach's take on this team when he was puzzled at how the offense -- his offense -- got away for a couple of nice runs over the whole day. Said he'd have "to check the film" to see how that happened. Not supposed to. Not now.
With this back-loaded USC defense the way it's playing now with Stevie and Khaliel, that shouldn't happen, even a couple of plays a day, Clay seems to be saying of a group that has been playing so "assignment sound. When they're assignment sound, talent takes over."
But that talent is no longer just along the back seven or eight.
And that may just change everything.
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