INDIANAPOLIS — He’s the best guard in the NFL draft. And he has been working out at tackle. But he would really like to play defense.
Meet Mike Iupati, a 6-5, 331-pound hulk who seemingly could line up at any position on the line on either side of the ball and bust your chops. Really bust ’em.
"I really love defense. That’s my favorite passion of the game," the Idaho offensive lineman said. "I know I’m physical enough to hold up two gaps and take on double-teams. I always pushed my coach to make me a defensive player because I am pretty good at it, but they needed me on offense."
Whichever team drafts Iupati — he’s expected to go in the middle of the first round — will get a player with an easy-going demeanor off the field but with a nasty DNA on it. He smiled frequently and spoke softly during an interview at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday. But listen to his game plan.
"When it comes to football, I like to destroy a lot of people," he said. "It’s fun."
Iupati’s road to the NFL has taken some unusual turns. A native of American Samoa, he came to the U.S. when he was 14 because his parents knew he and his siblings would have a better opportunity in this country. For a year, the family stayed in a garage at his aunt’s house — living from one paycheck to the next.
Iupati played football at Western High School in Anaheim, Calif., but struggled in the classroom — English was his second language — and didn’t meet the NCAA academic requirements. He considered attending Cerritos College, a junior college in Norwalk, Calif., and, in fact, was attending a barbecue there one night when a recruiter from Idaho stopped by and spotted him.
The recruiter offered to make Iupati a Proposition 48 student at Idaho. At first, Iupati resisted because he didn’t want his parents taking out a loan for college. But he finally relented and wound up becoming one of the best offensive linemen in the country (last season, he was one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy, which went to Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh).
"He’s a really fine person. Kind of an easy-going, gentle giant," and AFC college scouting director told Sporting News. "That’s a guy who could solidify himself (at the Combine). Not that he hasn’t helped himself already."
Iupati, who will have his Combine workout Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, said, "I’m hoping to run a great 40, bench 30 reps (in the 225-pound bench press) and show them how quick I am for how big I am. I know they really like me and respect me, so I want to kind of add icing to the top."
Although he played left guard throughout his career at Idaho, Iupati was moved to right guard in the Senior Bowl. He even played some snaps at right tackle during practice. He believes versatility will only make him more valuable.
That’s one reason Iupati has been working out with Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater in Irvine, Calif. Slater has been focusing on Iupati’s technique at left tackle — just in case an NFL team wants him to play there.
"I think it’s pretty good to be the best guard," Iupati said, " but being versatile will mean a great deal and hopefully move me up the draft boards.
"Whatever team picks me, and wherever they want me to play, I will definitely give them 110 percent and be the best at that position."
Iupati described his family as being "well off" when it lived in Samoa. The family owned a house and some land, his father was the top-paid mechanic at his company, and his mother helped at a relative’s restaurant. Because Iupati appreciates what his father and mother did for him by moving to the U.S., he’s planning on repaying them after he signs his first NFL contract.
"They made a big sacrifice, and I’m thankful for that," he said. "My parents want to go back to Samoa, and I want to take care of their dreams. Having a house built there for them would be the biggest thing I’d want to do for them."
Dennis Dillon is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at email@example.com.