UCLA’s fourth spring football practice ended near dusk Tuesday, and as the field began to empty, a 310-pound offensive lineman began sprinting, thundering sideline to sideline in a sweat-soaked shirt.
Xavier Su’a-Filo is trying to shake loose the cobwebs from two years away from football, when the sophomore offensive lineman was on a Mormon mission. He’s also trying to adjust to an offense with a tempo he described by snapping his fingers three times in quick succession.
“It’s no-huddle, you’ve got to constantly be going,” he said.
It’s his goal to be in game shape by the fall, when the season starts. That way, he said, “it’s like I never left.”
When he did, the offensive line became an issue.
“In past years, the line has always been shuffled,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “It was a different guy at every position every week, almost.”
But in Su’a-Filo, Prince sees an anchor, a left tackle to consistently guard the quaterback’s blind side.
“From the time I’ve been here, the most games we’ve won was the time he was here,” Prince said, referring to UCLA’s 7-6 season in 2009, when Su’a-Filo started 13 games as a freshman.
“And I’m not saying that he’s the sole [reason] for it, but it definitely helps to have a solid left tackle, the guy who’s kind of the anchor of the line.”
Much has changed in Su’a-Filo’s absence, largely that his former coach (Rick Neuheisel) was fired and a new coach (Jim Mora), staff, scheme and mind-set were installed.
“It’s just a different attitude,” Su’a-Filo said.
The NFL hasn’t drafted an offensive lineman from UCLA since 1999, but he stands as the man who could break that streak. Su’a-Filo was important enough for UCLA that Mora and two assistants flew to his home in Utah the day after he returned from his mission.
“He’s a very good football player,” Mora said, gazing off toward the practice field where Su’a-Filo completed a set of sprints. “He still doesn’t feel like he’s in football shape, but it’s coming.”
For Su’a-Filo, there’s a sense of relief just to be back on the field, in uniform and pads, colliding with opposing linemen, seeing the offense begin to jell, watching the defense try to stop it.
“I feel right at home,” he said.
Whoever is lining up at quarterback for UCLA will feel glad Su’a-Filo is there.
The comedian Sinbad, whose nephew is quarterback Devin Fuller, a 2012 UCLA signee, attended practice. So did former USC wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and Mora’s father, Jim Mora Sr. . . . Receiver Jerry Rice Jr. will have X-rays on his collarbone after being awkwardly hit on a play, Mora said. . . . Linebacker Jordan Zumwalt (stomach) and defensive back Andrew Abbott (knee) sat out practice, which ended early for running back Dalton Hilliard and linebacker Anthony Barr, who were suffering from cramps.