Brooks: Schedule Throws Curve To Liufau’s Prep Coach
BOULDER – Since the 2013 Pac-12 Conference football schedule was finalized, Tom Larsen had Saturday, Nov. 9 marked on his calendar. As the date drew closer, Larsen’s anticipation escalated.
His former quarterback at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash., had signed with Colorado, and the Pac-12 schedule was sending CU to Seattle on that date to play Washington. What Larsen couldn’t have foreseen several months ago was Sefo Liufau, his former quarterback, moving into the starting role for the Buffaloes.
It was all falling into place for a very neat Larsen-Liufau reunion at Husky Stadium . . . until Larsen had to make other plans.
“I have to give my tickets away,” Larsen told me Monday night by telephone. In truth, he can’t be that upset; what will keep him from attending the CU-UW game and watching Liufau is coaching Bellarmine in a 7 p.m. PST playoff game on Saturday. The Buffs and Huskies kick it off two hours earlier.
Larsen and Liufau likely will have their reunion on Friday after the Buffs arrive in Seattle. On the phone, Larsen sounded like a coach who wouldn’t let any opportunity pass to reunite. “We certainly miss that young man,” he said. “I’ve been at this 34 years and (Liufau) is at the top of the list in terms of character and being a competitor. On the field, in the classroom, around campus – you name it; he was the ultimate leader and he led by his service. He learned it and lived it with his parents, and we were the recipients. We were just fortunate to have him here.”
CU is seeing the same traits in Liufau, who shed his redshirt four weeks ago at Arizona State and started the next three games. In last weekend’s 45-23 loss at No. 17 UCLA, Liufau had what he and his coach, Mike MacIntyre, termed Liufau’s best game to date. The Buffs lost by 22 points but they might have begun finding themselves. And in addition to posting career highs in passing yardage (247) and completions (25), Liufau demonstrated poise and grit that weren’t lost on his teammates.
“He got hit a bunch last week and he came back to the huddle acting like nothing happened,” senior left tackle Jack Harris said. “Then he moved on to the next play and made plays. He’s a great guy to be around; I can’t say enough about him. He doesn’t act like a true freshman; he acts like a fifth-year senior out there. I haven’t seen a quarterback with his poise in a while.”
Some of the hits put on Liufau by the Bruins, said Harris, weren’t seen by the Buffs O-linemen until they reviewed game tape: “We didn’t know . . . we were going up-field or whatever. And he was like, ‘Keep blocking, keep going.’ He’s always positive. Then we did see him get hit later on a couple (of plays) and it started getting to us a little bit. He’s a man; he plays tough.”
UCLA was flagged for at least one late hit on Liufau, who shrugged it off Tuesday just as he did three days earlier. “I’m fine . . . you have to shrug it off,” he said. “It’s just a game; you can’t take it personally. Whatever happened on the field stays on the field.”
After he was knocked to the ground at the conclusion of one play, several of Liufau’s linemen turned and confronted a UCLA defender. He might not have shown it at the time, but Liufau was moved. “It meant a lot to have them come back,” he said. “I’m not going to let anyone push me around; a late hit is a late hit. I’m not going to do anything about that; they have a flag for that.”
MacIntyre said Liufau’s exchange with the Bruins underscored his quarterback’s toughness and “how much of a battler he is.” If MacIntyre also liked his O-line reaction – “They were all rallying behind him” – he kept repeating one thought for Liufau as he confronted UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr: “I was saying don’t swing at him, don’t swing at him.”
Liufau didn’t, maintaining his cool, but his most meaningful take-away from that exchange was seeing a competitive spirit from his offense. “We had our fight,” he said. “Teams aren’t going to just be able to roll over us. It’s not going to happen this year; it’s not going to happen anymore.”
Shortly after August camp opened, CU’s offensive coaches spoke of Liufau’s advanced maturity for a freshman. But neither they nor his teammates could know how he would react to a game like last weekend’s until he played in one.
“He’s really bought into what he’s doing and all that he’s been asked to do,” sophomore running back Christian Powell said. “You can see his improvement and his confidence growing week by week.”
MacIntyre was impressed that Liufau “kept competing, kept competing . . . the good thing is, every time he’s gone out he’s gotten a little bit better. That’s extremely encouraging to me and him, I think.”
Through four games, Liufau is completing 65 percent of his passes (74-of-114) for 826 yards. His touchdown pass-to-interception ratio isn’t stunning (four TDs, three picks) and he concedes he can be better in making quicker reads against more athletic, faster defenses such as UCLA’s.
“At times I kind of let it slip and misread something here or there,” he said. “I need to go through my reads quicker and get it to the open guy and make the right checks. I feel like I did pretty well (last weekend), but I still like I left some plays on the field.” In particular, he said, were missed throws to receivers D.D. Goodson and Paul Richardson.
Since he became the Buffs’ starter in the first quarter at Arizona State, Liufau’s self-critiquing has intensified. He continues to be his harshest critic, which isn’t a bad thing.
“There’s always room for improvement and I’m always going to see it that way,” he said. “I’m always going to be tough on myself . . . nitpicky on myself. But I’d say last week was pretty good in distributing the ball to my receivers that were open and taking what the defense was giving me.”
According to Larsen, Liufau’s work ethic will ease him out of those missed reads and throws. Larsen completed undergraduate and graduate work at Washington State and also played football (offensive line) for the Cougars with Liufau’s uncle – quarterback Jack Thompson.
Said Larsen: “I called Sefo ‘The Young Throwin’ Samoan.’ He reminded me of Jack in so many ways – how he throws, his ability to read defenses, the way they both took care of the huddle. When (Liufau) was here, we didn’t have to say too much because his teammates responded to anything, everything he requested because he was first in weight room, on the field, really at everything. Just by his actions, there was this automatic response from his teammates.”
Liufau expects to have several family members and friends in Husky Stadium on Saturday and admits he’s “pretty excited” by the prospect. At his weekly news conference on Tuesday, MacIntyre issued a team-wide call on his quarterback’s behalf for extra tickets. “He’s worried about tickets,” said MacIntyre.
But as for his young QB playing in front of his family . . . don’t worry. “I think he’ll enjoy (it) . . . I think he’ll do fine,” MacIntyre said. “It’s probably a little bit of a dream come true for him to go home and play in front of family . . . he’s so even keeled, I don’t think it will bother him. And I don’t think he has a girlfriend either, so we’re OK there.”
The biggest hang-up in Liufau’s homecoming might be Larsen’s conflict with Bellarmine Prep’s 4A playoff game. But it’s really not. They visited with each other over the summer and Larsen says he “doesn’t want to bother” Liufau during game week with anything more than an occasional text message.
Larsen still has Liufau connections. Sefo’s father, Joe, “still roams around our practices sometimes,” said Larsen, and Liufau’s grandfather, John, still serves as Bellarmine Prep’s statistician and drives the team bus.
“I get my updates from them,” Larsen said.
On Saturday night, when Bellarmine Prep plays Kamiak, Larsen will tap into another source of information on Liufau and the Buffs. “I’ve told our (play-by-play) announcer to give us periodic updates,” he said. “That’s a game I really hate to miss.”
NOTABLE: MacIntyre said running back Michael Adkins II, who missed the UCLA game with a concussion, practiced Tuesday. Adkins also was scheduled for another test related to his injury, and MacIntyre was hopeful the freshman could play Saturday . . . . Corner Kenneth Crawley (ankle) missed the UCLA game but is expected to play at Washington . . . . With three wins and four games remaining, the Buffs must win three of the four to reach bowl eligibility. MacIntyre said he believes his players have “a sense of urgency,” but added, “I hope they have (that) every game . . . we have to win three more somehow, some way.” . . . . MacIntyre’s hope for his offense on Saturday is to “tear down that wall at the 28-yard line” and get in the end zone more. He wants more than two TDs and three field goals – as CU had vs. UCLA – on “high red zone” trips . . . . UW tailback Bishop Sankey is the Pac-12’s No. rusher, averaging 145.2 yards a game. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins is 6-6, 276 and “a heck of a weapon,” MacIntyre said . . . . The Huskies (5-3, 2-3) rank sixth in the league in scoring offense (34.5 points a game) and scoring defense (23.6), third in total offense (501.9), and seventh in total defense (391.6). Nonetheless, MacIntyre said UW’s defense was “one or two of the most athletic in the league.”