USC G Taitusi Lutui went from junior college straight to a starting spot on Matt Leinart's blind side
(The 2006 NFL Draft is scheduled to take place on the weekend of April 29-30, during which nearly 300 college standouts will enter into the professional ranks. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will run a series of features on these NFL hopefuls, taking a closer look at some of the names you'll be hearing on draft weekend. There is no correlation between the players chosen for these features and the Buccaneers' draft plans, and any mentions of draft status or scouting reports are from outside sources. Our next feature: USC guard Taitusi Lutui.)
Taitusi Lutui, known to his USC teammates as "Deuce," is likely to be chosen within the first two rounds of next weekend's draft. Given that lofty draft status, it is quite possible that Lutui's first NFL team is going to want their new, 350-pound offensive linemen to handle significant playing time right away.
Lutui is anticipating just that, in fact, and he claims to be ready for it. Quick transitions happen to be his specialty.
"I feel very well fit to say that I can come in and start right away," said Lutui, the Trojans' starting left guard in 2005. "Making the transition from [junior college] to USC and starting right away, it's the same kind of impact I think I can make for a team here in the NFL."
Born in Ha`api, Tonga and raised in Mesa, Arizona, Lutui originally chose to play football at Utah. However, after failing to qualify academically he came back home and attended Mesa Community College so that he wouldn't have to miss a year of football. The next season, he went back to the state of Utah, transferring to Snow Junior College in Ephraim, and immediately emerged as a JuCo All-American.
That was 2003. The next jump, in 2004, was a doozy. Fresh off an undefeated season that ended in the number-one ranking in the polls if not a BCS championship game berth, the Trojans wanted to reload and they gave Lutui another shot at Division I-A ball.
He was thrown right into the fire, starting at right tackle, which meant he was protecting lefty quarterback Matt Leinart, that season's eventual Heisman Trophy winner, from unseen danger. Obviously, Lutui did his job well.
"I played my first year at right tackle and I started there on Matt Leinart's blindside," he said. "I asked to move to left guard and switching from right to left, it's a job so you have to do it. I adapted real quick."
He had to adapt. The USC machine, fresh of 2004's championship, wasn't about to slow down, and now Lutui's most significant job was opening holes for lightning-in-a-bottle running back Reggie Bush. All Bush did was succeed Leinart as the Heisman winner and set himself up as the most likely first overall pick in this year's draft. Once again, Lutui had handled sudden change with aplomb.
Then again, that's a lesson he learned early in life.
When Lutui was six years old, he survived a serious car accident that killed his sister and disabled his father. He still had his parents and other siblings after the tragedy, but he also had an added dose of responsibility. His family's native tongue was Tongan, and his parents' grasp of English wasn't great. One of young Deuce's main responsibilities was helping his parents pay the bills and understand America's economic system.
"My older brothers and sisters were mainly the parents for a while," he said. "It was part of the growing up process. I did help with that. I didn't have full responsibilities with the bills but I did have my part in helping mom and dad pay for them. Just doing stuff to help out mom and dad at home, working and translating for them - talking to people to help them pay the bills."
Knowing he is a strong bet to go early in the draft – most mock efforts have him anywhere between early and late in the second round – Lutui expects to help his parents in an even larger way soon. That's one of the things that motivates him, perhaps one of the reasons scouts say he is a hard-worker on the field.
"It's very big," said Lutui of the chance to help his parents. "It's been a lifetime goal of mine to have this career which I dearly love and why not get paid doing it? I think this is an opportunity for my parents to have their happiness with what I'm doing."
More than anything, of course, scouts like Lutui's size, which when paired with surprisingly quick feet make him one of the top interior line prospects in this year's draft. He is obviously most effective in short area, where he can lock on to a pass-rusher and just overwhelm him with his size, but he doesn't feel as if he's limited to just a few square yards of space.
"I bring energy, I'm an energetic player," he said. "I like finishing. Reggie Bush is pretty fast but I think I could chase him down, just trying to be where the ball is at. I just love being downfield, making the extra block when I can."
Lutui's work at right tackle in 2004 also makes him one of the more versatile O-line commodities available, and NFL analysts believe he still has potential to improve significantly.
"I just know that I'm ready," he said. "I'm ready for the next level and I'm ready to come in right away and make an impact on the team and maybe get a starting role."
That would prove to be yet another rapid transition for a young man who has seen plenty of them. Considering the huge changes he has had to make virtually every season since leaving high school, Lutui has hardly had time to contemplate how he got to this position, on the verge of entering the NFL as a high-round draft pick.
"I never thought I'd be in the place that I am," he said. "I'm very fortunate coming from Mesa Community College and just starting the dream there. To end up at a big-time school like USC, it's been a blessing and a thrill for me to accomplish what I have and to be where I'm at."