The former left tackle who shifted inside to guard after a two-year mission is emerging as one of the highest-ranked players at his position, and he's banking on the fact that coaches will come to appreciate his bruising style.
"Honestly, I don’t watch a whole lot of guys who kind of remind me of me," Su'a-Filo said Thursday. "I watch a lot of the guys I try to pattern my game after. I watch a lot of Logan Mankins, left guard from the New England Patriots. I think Logan, he was a high draft pick, but he’s physical. He’s a bad-ass, he started from Day 1 in New England, and I love how nasty he is, something about his game that I really try to implement.
"Other guys like Mike Iupati and Trent Williams, are really mean and nasty like that and that’s what I’m trying to be like."
Su'a-Filo said he went to UCLA for the long tradition of offensive linemen who have come from the school, but he has the chance to advance that this year. Playing for former NFL coach Jim Mora, who had never coached college before 2012, Su'a-Filo feels that he thrived in a pro-style environment with the Bruins the past two seasons.
"Coach Mora really treated us like men unless, you know, he had to treat us like boys," he said. "To me, him and his staff and their coaches, the environment that they created at UCLA was something that I imagined at the NFL, the next level.
"Perception is reality — body language, things that you say, you know normally a college kid would do or act like, wasn’t acceptable with them. He was understanding, but how you acted on the field, off the field, your attitude toward team things, his decision meant a lot and really affected the room and the staff and what they thought about you. Perception was reality with coach Mora.”
The reality is that Su'a-Filo — whom his teammates simply called "X" in college — is 23 years old even though he came out this season as an underclassman. He did a two-year stint at the Spanish-language Florida-Tallahasse mission, even though he didn't know a lick of Espanol before. He became fairly fluent in his two years of working around the panhandle of Florida, as well as parts of Mississippi and Alabama. But the trip did more than just give him a rewarding life experience.
"I think my mission helped me mature as a man, not only emotionally, spiritually, but physically," Su'a-Filo said. "It helped me in football. I think going over in mission, taking two years off really helped me just develop as a football player.
"When I came home, it wasn’t easy. I had a full offseason to work out and prepare for that season, but I think as far as health goes and my game, I have a lot of things to work on. However, I do feel like my mission overall was a benefit for me and its help me mature and be ready to move on to the NFL at this time."
He worked on his craft hard and made the switch inside after playing his freshman year at tackle. The results were fantastic. Su'a-Filo was voted first-team All-Pac-12 the past two seasons, and this season he was voted by his teammates to be UCLA's MVP — which is saying something for such an unheralded position — and was voted the conference's best offensive lineman by opposing Pac-12 defensive players.
But guards are more valued in today's NFL, as evidenced by Jonathan Cooper going seventh overall to the Arizona Cardinals last season, and Su'a-Filo has taken notice, which was one reason he came out early.
"I think last year there was, what, three taken in the first round? That was a big deal. I looked at the past few years before that wasn’t real high like that. But I think it all depends on the team’s needs.
"Nowadays in the NFL, from what I feel like, as an offensive lineman, if you can be athletic, if you can move, or at the guard position if you can be more flexible and you can play multiple positions, then you’re more valuable to a team. So I think really just got me excited to work harder and have an opportunity to go high."
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