By Johnny Curren
USC starting nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu isn’t sure quite what to expect when he returns to his hometown and enters Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday night.
As a member of the Utes football team for four years, Tu’ikolovatu is anything but a stranger when it comes to playing in the Salt Lake City venue in front of what is always a raucous crowd.
The difference now, however, is that for the first time ever, he won’t be suited up in red and white, but instead cardinal and gold.
“I think it’s going to be pretty cool, but weird at the same time” said Tu’ikolovatu, before adding with a laugh, “I don’t know if the fans are going to like me.”
Having earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology earlier this year, Tu’ikolovatu had the option of transferring to any school that he wanted to play out his final year of eligibility – and to do so immediately under NCAA graduate-transfer rules.
With the Trojans lacking in numbers along the defensive line, and the opportunity available to earn a master’s degree in gerontology, USC emerged as Tu’ikolovatu’s overwhelming choice. And so, he made the trek to Southern California this past summer with his wife, officially joining the team in August.
It’s a move that has paid off for both parties in a major way, as the 6-foot-1, 320-pound Tu’ikolovatu – who was stuck behind Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi on the depth chart at Utah – has emerged as a sturdy force in the middle of the Trojans defensive line. Just as importantly, at 25 years old, he’s brought veteran leadership to a unit marked by youth.
“The big thing about Stevie being here right now is how well he’s playing defensive tackle,” USC head coach Clay Helton said of Tu’ikolovatu, who has compiled nine tackles so far. “You look at him in the first three games, he’s been phenomenal. And the maturity level that he’s brought to the defensive front, he’s brought a lot of young kids up in a hurry. I’m very thankful he’s here.”
With USC looking to get on track after a disappointing 1-2 start to the season, Tu’ikolovatu will now face the program that he was a part of for so long, and even more significantly, the close friends that he once lined up alongside of.
Having remained in near-constant contact with his old teammates throughout his time in Los Angeles, the conversation has taken on more of a trash-talking tone this week – all in good fun, of course.
“I’ve been talking to a bunch of them,” said Tu’ikolovatu, a product of Salt Lake City (Utah) East. “We’ll probably throw it down on Friday, but as of right now it’s just jokes here and there. Just making fun of each other. All of that good stuff.”
His former teammates aren’t the only ones who are looking forward to seeing him again.
“I have a bunch of family and friends coming,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “I probably have 50 tickets already, and I’ll probably need more than that. The whole USC side will probably be my family.”
The Utah crowd, however, will undoubtedly outnumber the USC contingent in attendance by an ultra-wide margin. And with the contest serving as the setting for the Utes’ blackout game, an annual tradition where the team and fans don black for the evening, the crowd figures to be particularly hyped up.
Tu’ikolovatu, however, doesn’t figure to be phased.
“It’s kind of crazy, but now that I’m on the other side, it’s just fancy uniforms,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “We just have to come out and do what we know how to do.”
And Tu’ikolovatu is certainly doing his part in ensuring that his Trojans defensive teammates know exactly what they’re up against. After all, having gone head-to-head with many of the current Utes’ offensive linemen on a daily basis, perhaps no one knows their tendencies better.
“I think it’s a huge advantage,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “I let it all out to [my teammates] – telling everybody how a certain offensive lineman plays, what his weaknesses are, so we can try to capitalize on it.”
Above all else, however, Tu’ikolovatu knows that in order for the USC defense to find success in going up against Utah’s offensive attack, the unit, which has performed solidly for the most part, will have to cut down on some of the mental mistakes that have plagued them at times as well – particularly in losses to Alabama and Stanford.
From what he’s seen in practice this week, he believes that they’re on the right track.
“I feel we’re just about where we want to be despite those little mistakes that we’ve had,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “We’re trying to get those fixed right now, and we’ll have those fixed by Friday. So, we believe in what we have. We just have to put it on tape, like our coach would say, and eliminate our mistakes.”
And when Friday night does roll around, no one will be more ready than Tu’ikolovatu.
“I’m excited,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “I can’t wait to see what I can do against them. Hopefully it’s good.”