LOS ANGELES -- When Jim Mora came on board as UCLA's head coach, there were concerns that it would take him a while to get his recruiting strategy up to speed. After all, a career NFL coach making the jump to a recruiting hotbed like Southern California would need time to develop relationships and slowly chip away at the anchors USC, the rest of the Pac-12, and heck, the whole country, had already put into place.
However, his first recruiting trip wasn't to any of the perennial feeders in Los Angeles or the surrounding areas. It was to Pleasant Grove, Utah, which sits along Interstate-15 between Salt Lake City and Provo and has a population just south of 35,000. His target was a player who had already committed to the Bruins three years earlier.
Xavier Su'a-Filo had just returned from his two-year Mormon mission and was again recruitable. He was -- is -- that important to Mora and his long-term plans.
"He was our first priority," Mora said. "As a father, the first thing I noticed was his family. How tight they were. He was respectful and serious and he asked great questions. He wanted to know as much about us as we wanted to know about him. Everything about him and his family was impressive."
After two years away from football, Su'a-Filo jumped right in as a starter and earned first-team all-league honors in 2012, helping the Bruins to a 9-5 record and the Pac-12 South Division title.
"He's special," Mora said. "He was voted last year as a captain. He'll be a captain again. And to think he was voted a captain after not being around for two years. A lot of these guys didn't know him. That's the kind of impact he can make immediately."
As a true freshman in 2009, Su'a-Filo started all 13 games at left tackle for then-coach Rick Neuheisel. He had entered as the No. 3-rated offensive tackle in the country and started more games than any true freshman in UCLA history (non-kicking). He was a second-team freshman All-American and was Pac-10 honorable mention.
Then the deeply religious Su'a-Filo, who by the way is also an Eagle Scout, departed for the South -- living one year in Florida and another in Alabama to serve. He called it an amazing experience -- but also joked that there aren't many 6-5, 315-pound Mormons out there.
"I wanted to spread good tidings, but people wanted to talk to me about football," said the soft-spoken Su'a-Filo. "We would help people move. Do yard work. Work as translators [he learned Spanish for his mission] and just share the message of happiness we have."
While nothing will ever come between Su'a-Filo and his faith, he's happiest on the football field, where he enters 2013 as an All-American candidate at guard. He admits there was an adjustment period after being away from the game for two years.
"I'm not going to lie, it was pretty hard," he said. "Winter was tough. Spring was tough. By the time summer came around, I was getting the hang of it again. Fall camp was good to get back in the grind of football. By about the third or fourth game, I really felt comfortable and felt like I was back to it. I still get nervous before games, no matter what. Not scared, just nervous. Then the first snap hits and it all goes away."
Despite the big smile and soft voice coming from his hulking frame, it's hard to imagine anything making him nervous. One guy who is less nervous when Su'a-Filo is at his best is quarterback Brett Hundley.
"I believe he's one of the best guys I've ever met -- as a man on and off the field," Hundley said. "Everything about him is high character. He's caring, he knows what he's doing and he's a monster on the field. It's a true honor to have that kind of lineman protecting me. It's something special.
"He was playing some left tackle this spring, I didn't see [potential All-American linebacker] Anthony Barr for about two days. No matter who you put on him, he's going to do his best. He's such a competitor. You can put anyone on him and they won't be able to consistently beat him."
Quipped Mora: "Anthony might dispute that. When you put two players of that caliber head-to-head, everyone around them is going to get better."
Su'a-Filo is one of several offensive linemen in the league who could pick up All-American honors in 2013. The group is headlined by Stanford guard David Yankey -- a consensus All-American last season and the Pac-12's Morris Trophy winner. Oregon center Hroniss Grasu is also in that class (how great of an interior line would those three make up?).
"Without question, he's one of the top two or three guards in the country," said UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. "He's at that level. He would play for any team in the country. No doubt. If I had four more like him, I'd be on a golf course right now."
Su'a-Filo is looking forward to another year in the offense and spending more time at guard -- where he can pull "and run around chasing linebackers." He recognizes the Bruins had success last year, but also realizes the team isn't where anyone wants it to be.
"We have a lot to learn and I think we need to be angry about how we finished," he said. "Those last three losses will bother me until we get back on the field. ... A lot of people saw us last year and were surprised because we exceeded expectations. But I think we're still not respected. Nationally or in our conference. We want that respect and we're going to have to go take it."