UCLA wanted a leader, and Xavier Su'a-Filo figured he knew where to look to become one.
"I printed out a list of sayings," said Su'a-Filo, the Bruins' star offensive lineman.
All his coach did was laugh.
"He's young, and he thinks you have to be rah-rah," said Adrian Klemm, UCLA's line coach. "He doesn't understand sometimes guys are just barking. What he does on the field leads. When he does speak up, guys listen."
Klemm and Su'a-Filo came to UCLA four years apart, yet had the same mandate upon arrival: make the offensive line better.
It's anonymous work. No one cares about the offensive line — until the star quarterback is clobbered.
Television crews show up in Westwood to talk with quarterback Brett Hundley or linebacker Anthony Barr or linebacker-turned-running back Myles Jack. The only way the Bruins' offensive linemen could drive Internet traffic is if their names were Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Kobe Bryant and Lindsay Lohan.
But anyone who has been paying attention to UCLA football knows the whole kit-and-caboodle has teetered on the line for years.
The Bruins are preparing for the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Virginia Tech, whose defensive front ranks among the best in the nation. If that story line sounds familiar, there's a reason: USC's defensive front was held in similar high regard — until the Bruins rolled through it for 188 yards rushing and Hundley was provided the time to pass for 208 yards in a 35-14 win.
"I think that was a step forward, if nothing else from a mental standpoint," Coach Jim Mora said. "The grit and perseverance they showed was outstanding."
This has been, and remains, a long journey for the Bruins.
UCLA once collected Outland Trophies — an annual award given to college football's top lineman. The Bruins had two winners in the 1990s, Jonathan Ogden and Kris Farris. But in recent seasons about the only thing offensive linemen in Westwood have been collecting are medical bills.
Of the 21 offensive linemen UCLA signed from 2009-2012, nine retired because of medical issues. That left the Bruins scrambling every year to create an offensive line, and then maintain it through attrition.
To move forward, UCLA had to retain two people: Klemm and Su'a-Filo.
Klemm, now in his second year at UCLA, was locked up two weeks ago. USC came with a hefty offer. UCLA responded by bumping Klemm's pay to about $700,000. That kept in place a good coach as well as a top recruiter. Klemm has brought in 12 offensive linemen the last two years.
The other must-keep guy remains undecided.
Su'a-Filo, a junior, started 13 games as a freshman before going on a two-year Mormon mission. He will be 23 on Jan. 1 and is coming off a season in which he may have been the best offensive lineman in the Pac-12 Conference.
The NFL draft may await. He has filed draft evaluation papers and will make a decision after the Sun Bowl, which will be played Dec. 31 in El Paso.
Klemm is aware of all he could lose.
"He is a valuable resource to have around," Klemm said of Su'a-Filo. "He's another set of eyes on the field, another voice in the room."
Su'a-Filo moved from guard to tackle this season after Torian White suffered a broken leg Oct. 3 against Utah. Su'a-Filo then returned to guard when freshman Caleb Benenoch developed to the point where he could step in at tackle. But Su'a-Filo was then flipped back to tackle when Simon Goines suffered a broken leg.
"He's played next to four different guys this year, and has played with freshmen the last two years," Klemm said. "There are guys who might get mad, thinking those guys were bringing down his NFL stock. That's not X. He is mature beyond his years."
He's also a leader, though doesn't seem to know it.
"I've tried to become one," Su'a-Filo said. "I have read books. Coach Mora gave me a pamphlet. I think the young guys wanted me to be a leader. It's makes everyone comfortable."
Klemm doesn't buy that story.
"He's a humble guy," Klemm said. "He never pats himself on the back. But everything he does makes him a great leader."
This season, the Bruins lost three of their four top tackles. Yet, they go into the bowl game with a 9-3 record, fresh from beating USC for a second consecutive season.
Said Su'a-Filo: "What has been different this year is that we had our five guys, and you always want them to stay healthy. But we now have guys ready to step in."
None of them are named Bieber.
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