University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins
Pleasant Grove, Utah
Timpview High School
Su'a-Filo returned to the UCLA program in 2012 after serving two years on a Mormon Church mission to Alabama and Florida, concluding his Bruins career by starting all 40 games he appeared in. Fluent in Spanish, the former Eagle Scout had a major impact on the team's change in culture and fortunes in the win column since he returned to the UCLA program.
When Su'a-Filo was earning Freshman All-American honors in 2009, the Bruins produced a decent 7-6 campaign and thought that they were returning to their past glory. However, his first season away saw UCLA stumble to a 4-8 record, finishing 100th among the 120 major colleges in total offense (316.67 ypg) and for a team with a long history for passing success, they fell to 116th nationally in that category (141.08 ypg).
The 2011 season was not much better. The Bruins did win two more games than the previous schedule, but were still mired in the bottom of the national rankings, placing 72nd in total offense (376.64 ypg) and 81st in passing (198.29 ypg). When Su'aFilo returned to the team during 2012 spring camp, gone was the head coach that recruited him – Rick Neuheisel – who was dismissed by the administration due to the team's failure to win and problems with his recruiting practices.
In his place was Jim Mora, former NFL head coach, a task master to say the least, one that was to run a much tighter ship than the past regime. Su'a-Filo was all for the new attitude and was ready to "get back to work." Stepping on the field for his first preseason practice, the former offensive tackle did not know what to expect. "The program is definitely different," Su'a-Filo said in April, 2012. "I don't really know Coach Mora, but I have always been blessed with being able to adjust to coaches. Whatever Coach Mora has planned, I'm excited."
This was not how Xavier Su'a-Filo left the UCLA football program. The offensive tackle went off to his Mormon mission in 2009 leaving behind a team that finished with a 7-6 record after winning the EagleBank Bowl. Coach Rick Neuheisel appeared to have the program pointed in the right direction.
Su'a-Filo returned to find Neuheisel fired and the future in the hands of Coach Jim Mora, who met with the team on the first day of spring classes. "It's a little sad," said Su'a-Filo, who started 13 games as a freshman in 2009. "Guys I came in with and I was close to are gone." In 2009, the team's co-winner of the John Boncheff Jr. Memorial Award (rookie of the year) had delivered 97 knockdowns and nine touchdown-resulting blocks.
What Mora had planned was to bring in his culture. Failing academics or getting in trouble off the field would no longer be tolerated under the new staff. Of the 21 players in UCLA's 2009 recruiting class that included Su'a-Filo, only eight remained by the time the lineman returned to the university.
Su'a-Filo knew just how important he was to what UCLA was intending to do with their new environment when Mora and assistant coaches Adrian Klemm and Angus McClure traveled to his home in Utah for a visit on December 20th — the day after he returned from his mission.
Su'a-Filo spent two years in Tallahassee (Fla.) and in southern Alabama, "attending to people's needs and helping them find the Gospel, sharing the message." He had up to an hour of workout time each day, but even though he still weighed about 310 pounds he told the incoming coaches that, "I have lost some strength." But Su'a-Filo also said the time away helped him "be more focused and really diligent in my work. That'll help me in football, where some days it's a grind, especially in practice."
If there was any surface rust on Su'a-Filo from the two-year layoff, it certainly did not show by the time the 2012 season started. While he would still see game action at left tackle, the junior would start all 14 games at left guard, receiving All-American honors after he delivered 14 touchdown-resulting blocks for a team that finished with a 9-5 record.
The team ranked third in the Pac-12 Conference in total offense (6,531 yards) and averaged 275.71 yards passing per game, a marked improvement from Neuheisel's last squad (198.29 ypg in 2011). Brett Hundley, UCLA's starting quarterback, raved about the blind side protection he was accorded by Su'a-Filo. He said the his versatile blocker was the reason for his success during his first year as the team's starting quarterback.
Su'a-Filo seemed fine being a candidate for any line shuffle the coaches deemed. With the Bruins plagued by injuries to the front wall during his two seasons back, playing multiple positions within the same game did not pose any problems for him. Still, he does not sound like a player who will ever have a particular preference.
"Tackle, you just have more space to operate," he said. "You have more space with your defender. And [as a] guard, you don't have so much. You have guys on either side of you. That's really the only difference."
His head coach must have liked what he said, because Mora inserted Su'a-Filo into the lineup seven times at left guard and in six others at left tackle in 2013. The changes proved quite effective, as the blocker not only earned All-American first-team honors, but registered 20 touchdown-resulting blocks, the most by a Bruin since Jonathan Ogden had 23 during his All-American 1995 campaign. He also helped bring a bit of stability to a young front wall that was forced to deal with a variety of different lineups throughout the 2013 schedule.
Prior to the Bruins' 42-12 trouncing of Virginia Tech in the 2013 Sun Bowl, Su'a-Filo confided to some of his line mates that this would be his final game as a Bruin. Word quickly spread on the sidelines. While the coach was being doused with Gatorade in the waning moments of the contest, Su'a-Filo was suddenly lifted on to the shoulders of his fellow blockers and given a fitting exit from his final appearance for UCLA.
Thank you to all of you at UCLA who have supported me through the years and shown me love!! It's been real Westwood!! That was the message Su'a-Filo sent out to UCLA fans the following day.
Su'a-Filo started all 40 games that he suited up for at UCLA, starting 21 contests at left guard and 19 more at left tackle…Recorded 43 touchdown-resulting blocks (1.08 per game) and 337 knockdowns (8.425 per game average) during his time in the starting lineup.