In football, the offensive line is a team within a team, a group of five players who work as one. Groupthink is good. If a player is singled out, it’s typically because he has done something wrong — he has held, given up a sack, committed a personal foul, or the like.
With that in mind, Xavier Su’a-Filo is poised to break from the pack.
The former UCLA guard could become the school’s first offensive lineman selected in the opening round of the NFL draft since tackle Jonathan Ogden was chosen fourth overall by Baltimore in 1996.
“I’ve worked hard to be the best guard in this draft,” said Su’a-Filo, 23, who is leaving a year of eligibility on the table at UCLA but is older than most juniors because he spent two years on a Mormon mission after his freshman season. “I try to do my job, and I try to do it fast, and I try to do it violently.”
At 6 feet 4 and 307 pounds, Su’a-Filo has the size and versatility to play multiple spots on the offensive line, as he did in college when he logged 19 starts at left tackle and 21 at left guard. Most NFL evaluators see him as a guard in the pros, and maybe someone who can fill in at tackle in a pinch.
“Guards with unique athleticism and size are at a premium, and Su’a-Filo is one of those,” said Bill Polian, the former NFL general manager who assembled Super Bowl teams in Indianapolis and Buffalo. “If you’re a passing team, such as the Colts were and the Broncos are now, you’re looking for a more athletic kind of guard. If you’re a power-running team like the 49ers, you’re looking for more of a big, powerful road-grader, run-blocker type. Su’a-Filo is really a combination of those. He can do anything, and he’d be a fit for any team.”
Polian called Su’a-Filo “without question” the best interior offensive lineman in this draft class.
Of course, that’s no guarantee the big-bodied Bruin will hear his name called Thursday evening, when the league showcases the first round of the draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Pundits have predicted Su’a-Filo could go anywhere from mid-first round to the third, although he’s unlikely to linger that long. Recent history indicates guards, the antithesis of a glamour position, have been an increasingly hot commodity.
There have been many years in which no guards were selected in the first round, and yet the past three springs, seven have gone that early, including three in the top 20 picks last year — Jonathan Cooper to Arizona, Chance Warmack to Tennessee and Kyle Long to Chicago.
“The league is changing a little bit,” Su’a-Filo said. “You see these guys on defense, and they keep running just as fast, or faster. I think that the athleticism of not only the tackles, but the guards, matters now. You look at guys like (New Orleans guard) Jahri Evans, Mike Iupati for the 49ers, Logan Mankins in New England. I like watching all those guys.
“There’s something to be said for a left tackle and protecting (a quarterback’s) blind side. But now you’re seeing a lot more teams pressuring up the middle, trying to get to a quarterback that way, and having athletic guards allows you to reduce that.”
Su’a-Filo is more athletic than the typical man-mountain. He grew up playing fullback and linebacker, and might have tried to carve a niche at one of those spots had he not kept growing. As a youngster, he never dreamed of or wanted to play on the offensive line, but his body dictated otherwise.
His father, Paul, a former linebacker at Ricks College (now called BYU-Idaho), had him playing all sorts of sports as a kid, and jumping rope to work on his coordination, timing and foot speed. Clearly, that has paid off.
Former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, who recruited Su’a-Filo and started him as a freshman, said he’s talented enough to play left tackle in the pros but is a better fit at guard because he doesn’t have unusually long arms.
“He’s a dancing bear,” Neuheisel said. “His feet never stop, and they’re not just moving to move. They’re purposeful. He still has huge upside in terms of his strength potential, but there isn’t a better athlete in the offensive front in this draft.”
And, Neuheisel said, Su’a-Filo is a better person.
“When you invite him over for dinner,” he said, “you wish your daughter was his age.”
Su’a-Filo took a two-year break from football during his mission, which was performed in Florida and southern Alabama, and he was mindful of those who gave up on the sport for good after taking similar trips.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “I went, but I came back and I felt that was a good part of the plan. A lot of Mormon players who do go on missions, when they come back, a lot of them end up not playing football anymore or having that same desire. Some of them make it, but were never the same after their mission.
“It’s a personal decision. But to me, my goal was, if I go to college and I play, I’m going to go on a mission and I’m still going to play in the NFL. I wasn’t going to let anyone else tell me otherwise.”
That said, he completely disengaged from football when he was gone. He paid scant attention to what was going on in the sports world during that time, when, in his words, he “spent two years spreading the word of the Gospel to whoever wanted to hear it, and presenting myself as a disciple of Christ to help others improve the quality of their lives.”
Su’a-Filo worked with the Spanish-speaking community during his mission, becoming fluent in Spanish in the process. His only real connection to football came from the USC students who were on the same mission with him, and would gleefully inform him any time UCLA lost.
Then again, thanks to players such as Su’a-Filo, those losses became fewer and farther between.
Now, even though guard is typically an anonymous position, people are starting to learn Su’a-Filo’s last name, which is pronounced “sue-uh-FEE-low.”
Well, not everyone is learning it.
“The people who think about it too long and try to pronounce it correctly are the ones who butcher it,” he said. “The ones who just read it get it right. I’ve heard Swaffalo, Suweefee, Sofeelee, Sufulu.”
At UCLA, he answers simply to “X” or “X-Man.”
As for NFL teams, Su’a-Filo says, they can call him what they like. Just call him.