Former rugby player Leki Fotu hopes to expand his game with Cardinals

May 6, 2020, 8:38 AM | Updated: 10:16 am

Quarterback Steven Montez #12 of the Colorado Buffaloes is is sacked by Maxs Tupai #92, Leki Fotu #...

Quarterback Steven Montez #12 of the Colorado Buffaloes is is sacked by Maxs Tupai #92, Leki Fotu #99 and John Penisini #52 of the Utah Utes in the fourth quarter at Folsom Field on November 17, 2018 in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

If we take a trip down a timeline of Leki Fotu’s career as a Utah Utes defensive tackle, a few themes arise.

For one, the former rugby player took a step forward each and every year. The tape shows he got better.

His official listings each season also showed how he transformed his body to become a fourth-round NFL Draft pick by the Arizona Cardinals.

A three-star recruit out of Herriman High School in Utah, Fotu was listed as a 255-pound defensive end. The school listed Fotu at 280 pounds his sophomore year in 2017 and 323 pounds in his breakout year as a junior before he weighed in at 330 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame at the NFL Draft Combine.

All of that’s to say he’s got room to grow using that gerth to eat space, and more, along the defensive line.

“In high school I was being recruited to Utah as defensive end,” Fotu said on a video call Tuesday. “Now where I feel at, I feel comfortable playing inside — anywhere inside. I think Utah helped me learn my position, how to do my job my best for my team.

“I feel like with the vets and the coaching staff (with the Cardinals), they’re just going to elevate my game … they’re going to help me elevate my skills, open up new areas that I haven’t unleashed yet so I’m super excited to start on that with them and get better at my game.”

Fotu posted 25 tackles, eating up double-teams as a senior. He had 6.5 takedowns for loss and just 0.5 sacks.

The Cardinals project Fotu, like free agent signee Jordan Phillips, to slide all over the interior of the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph wants to utilize Fotu from the nose to the 5-technique spots, and in doing so there will be a difference from his primary role with the Utes.

“I think when you look at Leki’s size, everyone assumes he’s a run-stopper. The scheme they played at Utah, he was really coached to keep the linebackers clean,” Joseph said. “He’s more in a square stance, he’s more catching blocks and he’s just eating gaps. I think once you put him in an attack stance and allow him to go vertical and be disruptive, he’s going to be also a pretty good pass-rusher as far as pushing the pocket.

“I do think most teams, when they watched his tape, they assumed he was a run-stopper or a nose guard.”

Fotu returned after a strong junior campaign of 34 tackles and 3.5 sacks to lead what was viewed as one of Utah’s best defensive units in the last decade. They fell short of winning the Pac-12, suffering a conference title game loss to the Oregon Ducks in December.

Fotu said he viewed his success more in how his teammates fared than in his individual statistics.

Maybe his stats don’t scream production. Still, Fotu’s light feet and mobility — things he credits to his rugby background — stood out to the Cardinals.

“It’s hard to find big guys with those kind of motors that play that way every snap because big guys get tired,” Joseph said. “This guy plays hard every snap. I think his rugby background kind of speaks to his movement and why he runs so well.”

Fotu doesn’t have regrets about picking football over rugby, by the way. He had opportunities at a young age to pursue a pro rugby career, but after strong junior and senior seasons at Utah believes he chose the right path.

“I feel like I’ve done better at this sport, not knowing what could’ve happened,” Fotu said. “For me, I believe everything happens for a reason.

“During the last two years, I felt like one of the main reasons I came back to school my senior year was just to learn more about my position and to better present myself to the next level knowing that I haven’t really unlocked everything yet.”

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