Last July, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu was a backup D-lineman and married grad student transfer living in his car, waiting for his scholarship to kick in, able to work out only the player-run practices and doing so in his used Utah gear.
But from the first moment we caught up with him on Howard Jones Field doing early-morning sprints by himself as his soon-to-be teammates worked out under the coaching staff across the street, there was something special about this 25-year old from Salt Lake City everyone came to know as Stevie T.
He was large, larger than expected. And he could move. He was funny, had a different perspective and clearly was coming from a different place, He wasn't just taking his gerontology grad program as a way to keep his football career going. But that was a big part of it.
His opportunities at D-line-deprived USC would be greater than at Utah, he'd decided. As was the grad program he'd selected. But the plan was to showcase his talents, do what he could do to help the Trojans get back in the game and get himself on to the NFL.
This week in the NFL Draft, we'll see if Stevie T. has gotten every part of his decision process correct. So far so good.
The Rose Bowl Defensive MVP for his amazing team-leading eight tackles from his nose tackle spot against Penn State, the USC Lineman of the Year award-winner and emotional leader of a 10-3 Trojans team that just kept getting better and better as it finished No. 3 in the nation, Stevie T. was a big part of USC's improving fortunes.
And he may be taking with him more good will than any player who spent less than a year in Troy. Now we see how this all works out for Stevie T. -- and for USC fans wishing him well.
If the Rose Bowl game didn't highlight how much Stevie could do, his Senior Bowl Week certainly did. "Nose tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu made himself a lot of money with his decision to come to USC, turning himself into former Utah backup into the Rose Bowl Defensive MVP as well as a rising NFL prospect," CBSSports.com said, "[he's] turning heads during this week of Senior Bowl practice for his strength and ability to clog up lanes."
"He has been a absolute force inside this week and if you don't believe the eye test the analytics back it up," one NFL scout said among many praising Stevie.
Some of those "analytics" come from Pro Football Focus. They have the 6-foot-1, and now down from 350 pounds to 331 Stevie as their prospect No. 153 on this week's NFL Draft board, which, although not a mock draft, could have Stevie as a fifth-round pick.
"A classic, run-stuffing nose tackle, Tu’ikolavatu ranked second in the draft class in run-stop percentage (12.6) and had a strong week in the trenches at the Senior Bowl," PFF says. "He picked up only 13 QB pressures on 326 rushes last season; that will never be his game, but Tu’ikolovatu has value as an early-down run stopper at the next level."
PFF goes on to note that Stevie "ranked third in the nation in run-stop percentage with 36 stops from 286 snaps" adding that he's "almost impossible to reach block" . . . has "violent hands" . . . "embarrasses offensive linemen by rag-dolling blockers frequently at the point of attack" . . . has "good hand placement" and an "impressive first step for a 350 [now 331]-pounder."
But there are concerns, PFF says: Stevie "fails to shed if he doesn't dominate initial contact" . . . "struggles against double teams at the point of attack" . . . a "very limited pass-rusher" . . . "gambles occasionally losing gap discipline" . . . and "will be 26 by start of 2017 season."
Put those two evaluations together and here's PFF's "bottom line: "Tu’ikolovatu represents a difficult evaluation. His production against the run is off the charts, but he’s also in his mid-20s and offers nothing rushing the passer . . . [and while] pure nose tackles can make a major impact, Tu’ikolovatu is likely to be overlooked in favor of the prospects with higher upside. That said, Tu’ikolovatu is probably one of the safer options among the defensive line prospects and won’t require a high pick as investment."
Draftek.com sees Stevie going at No 194 in the sixth round to Philadelphia. Fox Sports does not have Stevie in their seven-round mock draft but the NFL.com draft board evaluates him as "a fourth-fifth rounder" quoting a NFC West Coast scout that: "I would take 'Big Stevie' in the fifth or sixth round over some of the name guys in the same conference who will probably get drafted earlier."
So there you have it. Stevie probably will be going somewhere. And much as was the case when he came to USC and most recently expressed in a tweet after the Senior Bowl: He's "grateful for the opportunity."