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Utah football: Filipo Mokofisi following in dad's footsteps

Published April 17, 2014 10:24 pm

Utah football • The defensive tackle's dad was star LB for Utes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

He has been sizing up this man his whole life.

Filipo Mokofisi stands 6-foot-3, 265 pounds — square-jawed and broad-shouldered. At 19, he already possesses the moves of a wily vet. His high school coach compares his talent to that of Star Lotulelei, now mauling interior offensive linemen in a Sunday time slot.

But the question looms: Can Mokofosi Jr. take Mokofisi Sr.?

Junior thinks so. Senior? Not so much.

"Maybe in five years or so," says Mokofisi Sr., laughing.

Sooner than that, though — at least in the minds of fans old enough to remember ­— Mokofisi Jr. will go toe-to-toe against his old man's legacy.

Mokofisi Sr. was named the 1984 Western Athletic Conference defensive player of the year as a linebacker for the Utes, although he doesn't like to talk about himself, and junior never saw him play.

He has only been told the stories.

"A lot of coaches up here still remember him," says the redshirt freshman defensive tackle, who comes across as humble when he's not giving pops some good-natured grief. "... I've heard he was pretty good."

Indeed, he was. Head coach Kyle Whittingham recalls that Mokofisi Sr. was a player before his time — a hybrid linebacker who could rush the passer and was athletic enough to drop into coverage. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, just a kid when Mokofisi Sr. played, describes him simply as "a beast."

"His son follows in the same line," Sitake said. "He's not only named after him, but he plays very similar to [how] his dad did."

Mokofisi Sr. says he didn't push his son into football: He actually insisted that he first try baseball. But "he kind of started to get bored," he says, so he brought junior to the U.'s youth football camp while Ron McBride was still head coach.

Thereafter, he was hooked.

Later Mokofisi Sr. worked as a volunteer coach at Woods Cross High School while his son played alongside Stanford-bound Sean Barton and they beat rival Bountiful for the first time in 23 years.

He says its surreal to again see his name on the Utes active roster, but he doesn't expect his son to be the same man and nor should you.

"He's a lot more advanced when it comes to learning the game. I give him all the credit because I never saw myself doing what he's doing."

That partly entails packing on pounds for a move from defensive end to defensive tackle. Entering his senior year of high school, Mokofisi Jr. weighed 190 pounds. He graduated at 220, and now as a redshirt freshman he's at 265. He says 280 is the goal.

To get there, he's eating six meals a day: "I'm hungry all the time. Fast metabolism."

Woods Cross coach Justin Spencer says that as an assistant at Kearns he coached against a young and — relative to now, at least — lanky Lotulelei. Watching Mokofisi gave him flashbacks.

"Filipo, he had the athleticism at 230 pounds that most kids don't have," Spencer says. "If he keeps any of that athleticism, he's going to be every bit as good of a player."

Sitake says it's too early to say whether Mokofisi will reach those heights, but the fact that he's on track to start on the Utes defensive line says enough: Often, that leads to the National Football League.

Mokofisi is half a bill lighter than some of the offensive linemen he's facing, "and yet he's stunning them at the line of scrimmage," Sitake says. "You'd imagine him adding more weight, it's only going to help him."

Currently, Mokofisi is listed as a starter at defensive tackle alongside junior Viliseni Fauonuku, but senior Sese Ianu and sophomore Stevie Tu'ikolovatu are expected to compete for those jobs in the fall.

If he remains in the conversation, that will be largely due to his outstanding technique, which he has honed — with his dad's help — from a young age.

"He's got really natural hands," said Utah defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki. "In the weight room he's not as strong as you'd like, but his leverage and his understanding of body positioning — he's got a natural knack for it."

Mokofisi Jr. knows he's slight for a defensive tackle, but he enjoys run stopping and prides himself on being balanced. His height gives him an advantage, keeping offensive linemen at a distance and off balance, "and then finally shedding the block," he says.

Dad says he's already proud.

He doesn't think his own achievements should result in any added pressure on his son, and if Mokofisi Jr. wanted to do something else, he'd support him.

"I've just told him since he was little: 'You play the game because you love the game. You don't do it for anything else.'"

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper Like father, like son (As players at the U.)

Mokofisi Sr. Mokofosi Jr.

High school East Woods Cross

Position Linebacker Defensive tackle

Height 6'1 6'3

Weight 232 265

Number 46 45