Utah transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu emerges as key piece for USC's defense

LOS ANGELES -- After going through spring practice at Utah, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu realized he wanted more from his final season of college football.

There wasn’t anything wrong about his situation in Utah, but stuck behind Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi on the depth chart, there didn’t figure to be the kind of opportunities for playing time the 6-foot-1, 320-pound defensive tackle could find somewhere else.

After graduating, he was free to look around. He visited Nebraska and Alabama, then moved … to Los Angeles. After a brief period of uncertainty, he was offered the opportunity to blueshirt at USC, which means his scholarship will count toward next season's recruiting class.

“I kind of left Utah not knowing that they would accept me here, and luckily they did,” he said, “because I don’t know where I would go if they didn’t.”

So far, the move is paying off. The Trojans, who lost five seniors and all three starters from last year’s defensive line, listed Tu’ikolovatu as the starter at nose tackle on the official depth chart released Sunday.

“I seen an opportunity open up with the young D-linemen [at USC] and I felt it was a good move for my wife and I, so we just decided to move,” he said. “Utah is a great place. I love that place, but this place is better for my wife and I.”

At 25 years old, Tu’ikolovatu is the oldest player on the team. He joined the program at Utah as a walk-on in 2009 and after redshirting that season, spent the next three years on his LDS church mission. The Utes put him on scholarship in 2013, but a foot injury cost him the entire season. Over the past two years, Tu’ikolovatu provided valuable depth to one of the best defensive lines in the country. He started two of the 12 games he appeared in last year, finishing the season with 25 tackles, six tackles for loss, and led the Pac-12 with three fumble recoveries.

“Obviously being the offensive coordinator and playing against Utah every year, he was a pain in the butt,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “He’s a big man in the middle and really a run force.”

Tu’ikolovatu said the transition has been going better than he anticipated it would. He didn’t arrive expecting to appear atop the first depth chart, but that might not be the best part.

“My wife loves it [in Southern California]. If she’s happy, I’m happy,” he said. “It’s easier to play football when you have a happy wife.”

That’s something none of his teammates can relate to -- he’s the only married player on the team -- but Tu’ikolovatu’s maturity and work ethic, Helton said, have benefited USC’s younger defensive linemen.

On being an older player, Tu’ikolovatu said: “I think the biggest difference would be kind of having a mindset that you’re out here for a purpose. You’re not here to be in college life. I’m here to try to build a life for my family, support my wife. So, it kind of gives me a more motivational drive to come out here every day and practice because I have a purpose behind it.”

When Tu’ikolovatu told his teammates at Utah that he was leaving, they were supportive of his decision and he remains in daily contact.

“I love those guys. I miss them,” he said. “They ask how things are over here. I ask if they’re still doing the same stuff over there and just share stories and laugh.”

Tu’ikolovatu was well-coached at Utah, but there is a major difference in how he’ll be used at USC. Utah coaches its defensive linemen to occupy opposing blockers to allow the linebackers to make plays. USC doesn’t. Defensive linemen are encouraged to get off blocks and make plays themselves.

“I think that’s pretty cool,” Tu’ikolovatu said.