After 25 years in Salt Lake City, with two of those on a Mormon mission, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu thought it might just be time to move on.
For his football future -- and "his family" which Stevie said meant his wife. So far, he's been right on both counts, USC's new starting nose tackle says. His wife is happy. And he's happy how things are now that they're "on our own." And he's happy his wife is happy. LA has been great and so has USC, Stevie says.
"I took the risk," he said, deciding to make the move after graduating from Utah this spring -- after spring practice and getting his release -- before he knew for sure USC would take him. "I'm not sure where I'd have gone if . . . ."
No "if" according to Clay Helton when Stevie's name cleared what is the annual NCAA "waiver wire" of grad transfers. A mature nose tackle -- from a big-time program? USC was on to that. Especially after checking Stevie's play out from last year's Utah game.
"A pain in the butt," Helton called him, "a big man in the middle . . . very, very effective."
And very much the change USC's thin, young D-line needed. "A big difference," says inside linebacker Michael Hutchings who lines up behind Stevie. "He's not just taking up space," he says of Stevie who will force teams to double-team him, "he's a huge factor."
But it's different here for Stevie, who's listed at 325 pounds on his thick 6-foot-1 frame that he says he likes putting "in the grinder." And that's something of a surprise for him coming from a program that prides itself in producing D-linemen.
He's learned a lot here, he said, from people like D-line guru Pete Jenkins in the position room, and from Kenechi Udeze on the field. Said he didn't expect to be treated like this great athlete," or anything. But didn't expect to be as needed as he was.
"Maturity," was the word both Clay and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast used Wednesday to describe his impact. Stevie says he's not sure what that means.
"I'm just trying to be me," he says although he knows his is "not the typical college life," that he's leading as USC's lone married player. Coming to USC was a family decision, he says, and the right decision.
USC really needed him. And he really needed USC, Stevie says. Because it is different here. "I really love Salt Lake City," he says. And he's in touch with his old teammates "every day," he says. He says they're happy for him. And so is he.
Because here's the difference in defensive philosophies, where his USC coaches have spent more time with him on "getting off blocks to make plays," he said.
"At Utah, they wanted us to hold on to the blockers and let the linebackers make all the plays. Here, it's OK to make plays."
Stevie likes to make plays, he said -- as much as he likes drawing the double team as the guy in the "grinder" spot.
"A really good fit for him," Clay said. It's why USC blueshirted a couple of players hoping to have the chance for a Stevie to come along.
"I wasn't here before," Stevie says of the change he's brought. "I don't know what life was like before but I just hope the change is for the good."
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