NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
In the coming weeks and months leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, NEPatriotsDraft.com will profile college prospects that potentially fit the needs and draft seating of the New England Patriots. In this third installment, we will take a closer look at the film behind UCLA offensive guard Xavier Su’a-Filo.
Xavier Su’a-Filo is carved from a different mold.
That mold turned the 6’3”, 285-pound offensive lineman into a three-year starter at Timpview High School in Provo, Utah, where the Thunderbirds won a state-record 36 consecutive games behind Su’a-Filo’s road-paving blocks.
He was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the state by Rivals.com. He was branded a top-35 prospect by ESPNU. He was named a first-team All-American by EA Sports. He was selected to play in the Under Armour All-America game.
Su’a-Filo was a four-star recruit, but he was also an Eagle Scout and a member of the LDS Church. And after enrolling at UCLA and starting a school-record 13 games as a freshman left tackle in 2009, after being named a Phil Steele second-team Freshman All-American and a Pac-12 All-Freshman selection, he decided that football could wait.
So he left to serve a two-year Mormon mission. It was a mission that would lead him across the country to Florida and Alabama. It wasn’t until winter of 2012 that the 6’3”, 305-pounder returned to school in Los Angeles.
No. 56 picked up where he left off.
Under the tutelage of UCLA head coach Jim L. Mora and former New England Patriots second-round pick Adrian Klemm, Su’a-Filo started all 14 games at left guard and spelled at left tackle. The redshirt sophomore played a key part in current Green Bay Packers halfback Johnathan Franklin rushing for the Bruins’ single-season record. He was named first-team All-Pac-12 as a result.
Su’a-Filo earned the same acknowledgement again this fall.
The 23-year-old started all 13 games as the Bruins compiled 2,556 yards and 36 touchdowns on the ground. He provided a blend of athleticism, power and experience on the left side of quarterback Brett Hundley’s spread-option attack. He kicked out to tackle when a season-ending injury hit. He won the Morris Trophy – bestowed upon the conference’s top offensive lineman – in December.
Yet after 40 starts over five years, Su’a-Filo declared for 2014 NFL draft in January. And although he’s taken a longer road to reach the draft process, he fits the mold of what personnel departments want in an interior lineman.
He will hear his name called within the top two rounds this May because of it.
Until then, head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots figure to be one of the organizations in contention for the versatile blocker. Now whether Su’a-Filo is available at 29th overall or 59th remains to be seen. But what has been seen is his tape.
Courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com, here is a closer look at how Su’a-Filo’s strength and mobility resonate in both offensive phases of the game.
An Agile, Explosive Run-Blocker
With nimble footwork and responsiveness off the snap, Su’a-Filo proved to be a natural fit for UCLA’s drive-blocking scheme.
Although he will run in the 5.2 40-yard dash range, Su’a-Filo is sudden in short space and could run an impressive three-cone time at the NFL Scouting Combine, much like his former Bruins teammate Jeff Baca did last February.
Now speed may not be vital for a blocker, but quickness is. If a 300-pound trench player can respond rapidly off the line, then that movement can be converted into power.
This is a correlation that Su’a-Filo embodies.
This is, at least in part, because much of his extra weight is carried in his lower midsection and legs. And while shifting mass upwards appears to be in the long-term plan, his unique frame has helped him engage and drive his defenders off the ball from the ground up.
His body composition is modifiable; his awareness and athleticism, on the other hand, are hard to teach. Su’a-Filo is a cerebral blocker who sees the defense pre- and post-snap. Furthermore, he has the flexibility and core to move laterally into rush lanes before shifting downhill.
Those traits have helped Su’a-Filo hit the second level as a pulling guard, a combination blocker and also as a bookend. He can square and engage his assignment. Then he can forge through them.
This was exemplified against USC on Nov. 17, 2012, during Su’a-Filo’s redshirt sophomore season.
With a 17-point lead in hand and over 12 minutes left in the second quarter, the Bruins assembled in “21” personnel for a Franklin inside cutback run. On the other side, the Trojans employed a 4-2 nickel that positioned 6’5”, 290-pound defensive tackle Leonard Williams in the three-technique across from Su’a-Filo.
Williams, who went on to amass 13.5 tackles for loss during his freshman campaign and be selected to the ESPN.com All-America team the following year, stood in the eye of the designed path. It would be up to Su’a-Filo to muscle him out of it on the 1st-and-10.
As Hundley handled the snap from Pistol formation, fullback David Allen broke towards the right B-gap. This drew linebacker attention and pursuit, which coincided with the play’s design. Because at the same instant, Su’a-Filo had dropped his hips and burst into the defensive tackle.
That impact off the ball would leave repercussions.
Su’a-Filo, head on with Williams, latched high and tight before following through the block. This sent the Trojans lineman backward and helped clear the second tier.
In the first tier, the fullback block set up the cut.
Franklin switched course as the defense crowded the right side. He saw a runway the fullback’s block all the way through then-UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria’s block.
In the middle of it was Su’a-Filo’s.
Su’a-Filo had arm-battled Williams, and he had utilized his lower weight distribution to knock him off kilter as well.
Su’a-Filo’s block carried Williams three yards back from his starting point. But as the back neared, Williams tugged his hands around Su’a-Filo’s right arm in an effort to move back into the play.
And with all Su’a-Filo’s momentum moving towards the first-down marker, the sideswipe rotated him back towards the line of scrimmage.
It was a cost-effective sacrifice on Su’a-Filo’s part. Franklin used the roadblock to launch into the secondary, before Wes Horton lunged for his shoelaces and made contact
The play went for 10 yards and a first down. It wasn’t a textbook play for Su’a-Filo; it was an explosive one.
Now on occasion, Su’a-Filo stands up and oversteps his reach, allowing his opponent a chance to swing around for the ball-carrier. On occasion, his hips fail to dip as he thrusts into a defender’s pads, slowing his feet and leaving him susceptible from a leverage standpoint.
Still, the culmination of willingness and ability accentuates refinement.
An Energetic, Combative Pass-Blocker
Su’a-Filo’s efforts in the run game translate to the pass.
When you watch him work in pass-protection, one of the first things you notice is his hand use. He doesn’t waste time establishing the inside punch. And as his opponent sheds, he is reactive in replacing his initial hand with the next one.
Su’a-Filo takes the same approach, regardless of whether he’s covered or uncovered by a defender. He is diligent in finding the combo block and swaying the gaps, yet he can also sit back in his anchored stance and be problematic against the bull rush or swim move.
Now even though the UCLA offense gave way 36 sacks in 2013 – 109th in the Football Bowl Subdivision – the offensive line didn’t wear an albatross around their necks for it. Much of the outcome hinged on Hundley’s elusive playing style, and subsequently, his time spent in and out of the pocket.
In result, some of Su’a-Filo’s most resilient moments transpired on broken plays and coverage sacks. This was seen versus Stanford on Oct. 19.
Down 17-3 with less than four minutes left in the third quarter, Hundley and the Bruins went to a four-wide, empty-backfield set on 1st-and-10. The Cardinal defense, conversely, went to a 3-2 dime package, rushing only three and dropping two linebackers into coverage.
Two of those linemen, draft prospects Josh Mauro and Trent Murphy, combined for 19 sacks before their final collegiate season drew to a close.
One of those 19 would be registered on this play.
The 6’6”, 261-pound Murphy played the seven-technique outside of left tackle Simon Goines, while the 6’6”, 281-pound Mauro played the three-technique outside of Su’a-Filo. And without a halfback residing in the backfield, both had one goal in mind: rush the passer.
As Hundley handled the snap from shotgun and went through his progressions, Su’a-Filo dipped, bent his knees, and extended to punch Mauro’s chest plate.
He was able to do so violently, locking the Cardinal’s forearms.
Hundley, meanwhile, stood in the tackle box and waited for a mesh point to reveal itself.
He had ground to stand on until then. Center Jake Brendel and right guard Alex Redmond doubled the one-technique, while Goines detered Murphy’s inside shoulder.
And within the A- and B-gaps, Su’a-Filo entrenched his right foot as Murphy attempted to rip back inward, tilting his knees towards the quarterback.
Su’a-Filo’s well-grounded base made the task a difficult one for Mauro. He was unwilling to let his man redirect under control. Mauro vied to dislodge his arms from Su’a-Filo’s heavy hands, but functional leverage was swaying against him as his feet grew distant from his upper body.
On the edge, a low and unbalanced Murphy was slowly finding different results. He had cut back towards the B-gap, trimming the cushion between himself and Hundley, who was idling without open windows downfield.
Murphy regained balance and stepped back, which left Goines lunging and without balance. This afforded the All-American an opportunity to sweep behind Su’a-Filo, who had fended off Mauro’s arms to stay square and lengthen the play.
Nevertheless, the time to lengthen the play was dwindling. Hundley stood nine yards behind the line of scrimmage with targets blanketed and linebackers spying on the scramble.
The uncertainty played into Murphy’s hands. He knifed into the void; Hundley maneuvered towards him.
The redshirt sophomore could not dodge the redshirt senior, going down for the sack instead.
An eight-yard loss was the byproduct, but a faltering offensive line was not the reason why.
Su’a-Filo, for one, had contained Mauro’s pushes and pulls through the whistle. He had optimized the room for his quarterback to climb the pocket and make a decision. Only he was unable to with coverage well-placed.
The play expended six seconds.
Now at times, Su’a-Filo is a constituent in his QB being sacked. At times, he misgauges the defender’s jump, which leads to more difficult blocking angles at the point of attack. At times, his combo blocks are overmatched by inside stunts. At times, his back arches, his knees straighten and his plant foot rises, conceding leverage.
Yet within Su’a-Filo’s flaws rest his upside. For a player who spent two years away from the game, he plays like one who’s making up for lost time. And the way in which he finishes blocks illustrates that.
While Su’a-Filo is a mature and well-traveled 23 years old, his growth is far from stunted.
Physically, technically and mentally, Su’a-Filo has continued to evolve on the left side of UCLA’s line. In turn, he carries the blend of size, power, flexibility, quickness and persistence to be a first- or second-round draft pick.
And if the last five years are a useful barometer of progress, then the well-traveled Utah native offers the potential and stability a team like New England could be searching for.
The Patriots have only drafted nine interior offensive linemen since 2000, and only two before Round 4. Yet with influential offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retiring after 30 years in Foxborough, it is a variable to watch for sooner than later this May.
So is Su’a-Filo.