Leki Fotu's Fulfilling His Promise

Photo: © Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Instead of taking the typical top paragraph as an opportunity for colorful background or rousing preamble, I'm gonna show you a clip of two plays and ask you to guess the football player we're gonna be talking about today.

You got it! USC's center.

Well, not really -- there's not that much left of him to discuss. In Week 4, he drew the short stick when he lined up against Utah DT Leki Fotu, a 6-foot-6, 335 pound behemoth defensive tackle with something to prove. That's who we're going to talk about today: my DT6, a Top-100 player on my big board, and a player you need to watch, if not for the giggles elicited by plays such as the one above.

Fotu entered Utah as a 6-foot-6, 255 pound defensive end prospect. (See what I'm doing with the colorful background now?). As he grew in his first couple of years with the program, HC Kyle Wittingham's staff entertained the idea of moving Fotu to the opposite trenches and feeling him out at offensive tackle, a consideration that illustrates one of Fotu's greatest traits: his length. Fotu's one of those "pause to make sure I'm seeing this right" guys when he settles into his stance. It just doesn't seem okay for a dude to have vines like that.

Fotu was all length from the beginning, but as he packed on mass and added power, he retained his role on the defensive line and started at nose tackle for the 2018 Utah Utes as a junior. From an uncertain new starter to first-team Pac-12 DT he went, over Arizona State standout and eventual fourth-rounder Renell Wren. The magic word of Fotu's 2018 was promise: everything was there, but in flashes, which became more frequent and less ignorable as the season went on.

In September:

In October:

In November:

And now, back in September and into October of his senior season, it's clear that Fotu's growth is not stunting; his development has not yet hit its plateau. Fotu remains one of the most disruptive defenders against the run in all of college football, in large part because of the power demonstrated on plays such as the one above, and the one below, against BYU.

You'll notice that Fotu fails to activate his length here, working to a stack and shed -- that's an uncommon occurrence for him on film, but I wanted to highlight it here because it's easy to see Fotu's upper-body power on film: dude has warhammers for hands and an explosive lock in his elbows. But his game isn't predicated on upper-body strength so much as it is tremendous core and lower body power: unlike a lot of taller defensive linemen, he has coil/uncoil ability in his hips and great torsion strength to generate power at odd angles such as these. It's what helps him keep his balance in tight areas and reduce his surface area.

That's an interesting aspect of Fotu's game as well: he's not a penetrating type for Utah and likely won't be as desired by NFL teams that value penetration above all other traits in the defensive trenches, but he does have a good first step off the ball and can get skinny through gaps. That helps him as a slanter or crasher on DL pass-rush games, but it also flashes when he's addressing zone flow. Impressive hustle on the 330+ pounder as well.

The extent to which Fotu can become more comfortable playing within gaps and not through interior offensive linemen, the higher his stock will fly. He's likely the best true "nose tackle" in this class, though players like Auburn's Derrick Brown and Florida State's Marvin Wilson are more than capable at playing and winning between the guards. Those guys can win with rush moves, penetration explosiveness, winning half-man battles -- Fotu doesn't have that in his toolbox as much yet, but there's been a clear focus in the spring and improvement in the fall on that aspect of his game.

First off the ball, quick to recognize the run action in the backfield, powerful with his hands and agile, quiet with his feet. That's not the rush of 335 pound player, and that's the still-enticing ceiling that Fotu has not yet hit.

What remains the bread and butter of Fotu's game is that 0-technique role: lining head up on the center, winning with initial explosiveness and powerful hands before the center can reset his snap hand, and just cake-walking the poor sod into the backfield. Fotu's value to Utah in this role extends so far beyond the box score because of just how quickly he damages the integrity of the pocket or the gestalt of a run-blocking scheme. On this play against Utah, Fotu quite literally gobbles up two extra blockers -- three total -- because of how quick and powerful he is off the ball.

Watch the pulling left guard and tight end -- or, at least, watch them try to pull. With one devastating bull rush, Fotu creates a three-car pile up in the backfield and leaves USC RB Stephen Carr fully exposed to the rest of the Utes' defense. Again, watch how the lower-body explosiveness becomes bulldozer power once Fotu wins his hand location on the chest of his opponent. That's NFL size, NFL power, and NFL placement; that doesn't go away.

At the very least, I have an interior wrecking ball for your odd fronts -- teams who are increasingly using 5-down linemen and the Bear/Tite front will be interested in Fotu's ability to occupy two interior players and disrupt pullers in the backfield. As Fotu has grown, it's become clear that he has the power to play against any interior lineman from any alignment and still present push in the backfield, against both the run and the pass. The question that remains concerns pass-rush upside, but with Fotu's length, hand strength, and power, you're willing to bet on continued to development for a player only just settling into his frame and coming to understand his ability.

Leki Fotu's 2019 season has started off with as much fulfilled promise as any of those many underclassmen who returned to school to improve their stock. It's hard to notice the improvements on each one, but Fotu? He tends to stand out in a crowd.