I’m super excited to get ready to play at home. It will be weird, but I think it will be more fun than weird. —Stevie Tu'ikolovatu
LOS ANGELES — Sleeping in his car or with relatives, working out on his own, wading through the NCAA’s red tape, USC defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu wondered if he’d made a mistake.
“I was basically homeless,” the defensive tackle said. “It was kind of frustrating. I started to get the feeling I don’t belong on the team anymore. I was doing my own thing, hoping it would work out over here and I’m just glad it did.”
The East High graduate took a calculated risk when he decided to transfer from Utah to USC in June. Graduating in the spring with a year of athletic eligibility remaining gave him the chance to leave Utah without penalty from the NCAA. He said he decided to look at other programs after spring football made it clear that he wouldn’t start for Utah, despite having a Pac-12-leading four fumble recoveries last season, as well as earning 28 tackles, two sacks, two deflections and a 37-yard fumble recovered for a touchdown.
No doubt he is a talent.
Still, he had to find a place that wanted a lineman for a single season. He visited Nebraska and Alabama before heading to Los Angeles, where he talked with USC coaches about his options this fall. “I targeted USC because it was closer to home and in the Pac-12,” said Tu’ikolovatu, who will return to Rice-Eccles Stadium this Friday with the Trojans to take on his former teammates in Utah’s Pac-12 opener. “They needed defensive linemen. They were pretty thin.”
So Tu’ikolovatu did something not a lot people would have predicted possible just a few years ago — he transferred from Utah to USC for playing time.
While Utah has slowly risen to recognition on the national stage in the last three decades, USC is one of the country’s traditional powers. The Trojans have 11 claimed national titles (six unclaimed), 38 conference titles, 7 Heisman winners and 80 consensus All-Americans, while Utah, which joined the Pac-12 in 2011, owns 24 conference titles with 27 consensus All-Americans and is still trying to convince some that it belongs in top-tier conversations.
So while his move may have angered or offended some Utah players, fans and coaches, it also illustrates an interesting reality.
Utah is a defensive-line powerhouse.
“Utah is noted across the country as having really good defensive linemen, and really offensive linemen too,” said former head coach Ron McBride, who said there are a few reasons why Utah has become a program known for not only finding and developing some of the nation’s best defensive linemen, but also putting them in the NFL. “Everybody that plays against them knows they have really good players.”
McBride, who coached at Utah three different times, with the most recent being head coach from 1990-2002, said that when he took over as head coach, the Utes had only had five winning seasons in 15 years.
“When I first took the job at Utah, nobody in the league, except BYU, played good defense,” McBride said. “My deal, right from the very start, was take every good player we had and put them on defense.”
And McBride recognized the abundance of talent in a group that some have traditionally overlooked.
“The fact that the Polynesian culture was going to be really important to the program,” McBride said. “That’s one of the places we were going to recruit hard. In Utah, outside Utah, Hawaii — and a lot of those kids were defensive players.”
When Greg McMackin left after the 1991 season, McBride hired Fred Whittingham Sr. to take his place.
"I was fortunate enough to hire Fred Whittingham, and he was a real disciplined, defensive coach,” McBride said. “He was able to establish a more technically sound player and develop our depth.”
He also brought in a young defensive line coach — Kyle Whittingham in 1994. A year later, Kyle would take over defensive coordinator duties when his father left to coach linebackers for the Oakland Raiders. But Fred Whittingham Sr. would return to Utah in 1998 to coach under his son.
McBride said that by recruiting great athletes and giving them quality coaching, Utah established itself as a defensive juggernaut.
Consider that from 1971 to 1990, Utah had nine defensive linemen play in the pros. After 1990, 27 defensive linemen have played professional football after leaving Utah. Of those, 14 are Polynesian, proving McBride’s assertion that the culture — in every way — is a natural fit for the demands of defense.
Former defensive coordinator John Pease acknowledges that the Polynesian culture helped solidify Utah’s place as a defensive power.
“The Polynesian body — strong, physical and warrior-like — is a great fit for the defensive line,” said Pease, who has coached in college and the NFL since 1968 and retired as Utah’s defensive coordinator and D-line coach last year.
He said that schools that are known for developing specific talent gain that reputation over time when quality talent meets good coaching. He points to USC being known as “Tailback U” and Penn State being famous for developing linebackers.
“And BYU as a quarterback school,” he said. ‘You get a reputation, and if the kid is thinking, ‘Hey, look, Utah has got all these guys in the National Football League, what’s in the mountain water? I think they believe the coaches can make them great. There is nothing like believing you can do something to really open your mind to possibilities. And if you say, ‘Where are the great defensive linemen? Or which team develops D-linemen?’ A large number of people would say Utah.”
Pease said he feels badly that Tu’ikolovatu left Utah for playing time because he sees it as a loyalty issue.
“From my point of view, he was playing one-third of the time,” Pease said. “It’s just a shame in this day and age that loyalty doesn’t mean more. He wasn’t starting, and maybe he felt that was a slight.”
Tu’ikolovatu is off to his best collegiate season as the Trojans' starting nose tackle. He has nine tackles, four last week against Stanford.
“He’s been phenomenal,” said USC head coach Clay Helton, who has repeatedly praised Tu’ikolovatu for his veteran leadership. “He’s brought a lot of young kids up in a hurry.”
In a telephone interview Tuesday night, Tu’ikolovatu said he has talked to his former teammates but not his former coaches. He is thrilled to be playing in Rice-Eccles again — even if it’s in cardinal and gold instead of red and white.
“I’m super excited to get ready to play at home,” he said. “It will be weird, but I think it will be more fun than weird. It’s the loudest place I’ve played. I feel prepared. I’m trying not to get too over-excited and just remember we’re going there to win.”
Adjusting to new coaches went smoothly for the 25-year-old, who also happens to be the older player on the Trojans' roster thanks to a two-year Mormon mission.
Tu’ikolovatu, who had four tackles against Stanford last week, said he feels like he did the right thing for his future because he was able to enroll in a master’s program in gerontology. “USC has worked out better than I thought it would because of the master's program I was able to get in,” he said. “Football is just a bonus for me.”