For massive defensive lineman Leki Fotu (6-5, 330), the journey has been a unique one from playing rugby at home and in London, one season of football in high school, heading to Utah and now parlaying it into being a fourth-round pick by the Cardinals.
His father played rugby in Tonga before the family moved to Oakland where Fotu was born. His brothers also played and Fotu said, “They're the main reason why I got into it. Once I started playing rugby, I started falling in love with it toward the end of my sophomore year. That's why I sat out my junior year in high school, to play rugby.”
The move to football was a basic one. He said, “I stopped playing because football gave me a better opportunity in the long run with a scholarship to Utah that I got when we moved out there and just how much football has to offer more than rugby right now for me.”
Fotu said his love of football began growing after his freshman year at Utah. “My sophomore year that’s when things started picking up for me and it started clicking for football,” he said. “By the time I hit my junior year, that’s when I knew that I had a potential with football in the long run.”
Part of the development was becoming comfortable with football and “getting used to not carrying the ball anymore, down to a full stance and just trying to balance that out with my technique. It's way different from always standing up during a game in rugby to kind of staying as low as I can for someone my size in football.”
There is no doubt in his mind that his football prowess has been aided by his time playing rugby and why one of his strengths is described as having “plus athleticism and range down the line as a big man.”
Fotu said, “For me, playing and transitioning into football, it definitely helped me out and helped mold the player that I am today. The way that I move right now with my size; in rugby you have to be able to move and run and be conditioned as a big guy. Being on the defensive side, in rugby there’s no pads or anything involved, so when you come back to football wearing pads you have the courage to do anything. Everything that I did with that sport definitely helped me out with my athleticism and the way that I move inside for the position I play.”
That position with the Cardinals will likely be on the nose in the team’s 3-4 scheme where Corey Peters, who will be 32 in June, is the incumbent.
But Fotu knows he is more than just a run-stuffer. He said, “Right now, I know that’s my strength. At the same time, I know in Utah the scheme that I was in there, that’s what most people see. I know that I’m a pass rusher and I’m excited to start with the Cardinals D-line coach (Brentson Buckner) and help me exploit the area because I know I have more than just being a big guy in the middle and (can) help out the defense with applying pressure and getting to the quarterback.”
In addition to rugby, Fotu credits his older brothers, who were also college players on the defensive line: Joe at Illinois and Anthony at Arizona.
“Growing up, my older brother played football first. He kind of paved the way for us. I didn’t really get comfortable with football until I went back into it my senior year of high school and when I started to understand just a little bit before getting up to Utah, but that’s when I knew that being on the defensive side was something for us. Watching them when I was younger play D-line too, it kind of shaped me to who I am today.”
Quotes in this story are from conferences with Arizona media after he was selected and at the Scouting Combine.