A Fili for his role
There's nothing sexy about being on point with each assignment. Nothing seductive about tying up blockers so Keith Rivers can lead the team in tackles.
Still, Fili Moala is one of the few USC defensive lineman who would be permitted to date David Watson's daughter (if the coach ever has one). And, according to talent evaluators, Moala is one of the few defensive tackles in the country that could warrant a first-round draft pick.
The Buena Park native's 25 tackles are 11th-best on the Trojans. Of his three tackles for loss, the one sack might as well have been invisible. Coaches picked it up while reviewing tape of the Trojans' 38-0 victory against Notre Dame and had to submit for a change in the official scoring.
Yet, draft experts have not missed a thing. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Moala as the top junior defensive tackle in the country. Scouts Inc., says Moala would be the third player taken at his position – if he entered the upcoming NFL draft. The only interior linemen it rates above him are USC nose tackle Sedrick Ellis and LSU's Glenn Dorsey, viewed by many as the top senior in the nation, regardless of position.
"He's kind of the unsung hero," Rivers, a senior linebacker, said of Moala. Rivers has recorded a team-best 66 tackles this season, after leading the Trojans with 85 in 2006. "Any stats that I get are deserving of Fili. Any type of praise I get, I've got to put it to Fili. He does a great job keeping people off me, so that I can make plays."
If Moala can break through the offensive line, that's great. But USC looks more for its three-technique tackle to step right, hit the proper gap and swallow up a guard and tackle.
A weird role?
"It can be," Moala said. "Because sometimes you think you're not doing your job. But you are doing your job.
"Sometimes I'll just be like, 'Man, I'm going to make this tackle right now.' Sometimes, I don't want to stay to my job. But it's for the betterment of the team."
Halfway through 2006, Moala took the starting role from his good friend Chris Barrett, and the two players pushed each other until season's end. After Barrett failed to qualify academically for 2007, Moala was left to push himself. His goals: "Just make all the tackles, get all the sacks."
A steep challenge, sure.
"But when you're ambitious like that," Moala said, "It's more than possible."
His rise started with conditioning. Moala entered USC at about 325 pounds. Three years later, the 6-foot-5 redshirt junior is down to about 290. Along with increased quickness – particularly regarding his first step off the line of scrimmage – Moala has become more powerful.
Chris Carlisle, the Trojans' strength and conditioning coach, said Moala's proportion of body fat has fallen from 22 to 13 percent, while about 30-40 pounds have been converted from fat to muscle.
"Fili's got such great natural talent, that he was able to live off that for a long time," Carlisle said. "And then he finally realized that, 'If I really want to be a dominating force, I've got to go ahead and find other avenues of training.'
"It wasn't that he was a bad trainer before. He worked very hard. But he really stepped it up this past winter and this summer and really has done a great job."
The only male in a six-child family, Moala could not play football until high school – mom's orders. Instead, he starred in basketball and baseball, playing first base, pitcher, catcher and right field.
However, his family is "a big football team," with several uncles and their numerous kids having played at one level or another. Three cousins have played at either Oregon State or Oregon.
Trojans coaches came to appreciate Moala's work ethic early, naming him the service team's defensive player of the year, when he redshirted as a freshman in 2004. It foreshadowed the type of player Moala would grow into – heeding his coaches and executing the assigned task.
"He does everything right," senior defensive end Lawrence Jackson said. "It's really hard to explain, because it's so technical. In our defense, being in the right place – that's doing a lot."
Natural athleticism cannot help a three-technique fill the correct gap. That comes from education. Moala has acquired such an intricate knowledge of his position that he can evaluate each play instantaneously.
"We've gotten to the point where he'll come back after a play, and, 'I know, Coach. I know,'" Watson said. "I'll just have to look at him, and he'll know exactly what I'm going to say.
"He works so damn hard out there, and he's so hard on himself."
Moala expressed disappointment with his statistical output, even while acknowledging how much more there is to his role.
"I really don't feel like I have to be given up for somebody else to make a play," he said. "I feel I can make all the plays. For some reason, I just feel like I haven't been playing up to my potential right now."
He said he does not follow draft rankings, despite constant questions regarding his future. The Baltimore Ravens selected his cousin Halotia Ngata with the twelfth pick of the 2006 draft, showing Moala the kind of payday he could earn with another year at USC.
"Honestly, I don't know (about entering the draft)," Moala said. "More than likely, I've got to graduate. I want to graduate.
"I just want to do things right."
As if that ever presented a challenge.
Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com