SALT LAKE CITY — If Maxs Tupai could give his high school self advice on how to handle the transition from being a four-star prep recruit to a successful college player, he’d keep it simple.
“Just be confident,” said Tupai, who earned praise from coaches after his performance at Stanford, which was the first start of his career at Utah. “Everybody out here is good. … It’s just a different level of speed and strength. I just have to be confident.”
The redshirt sophomore looked extremely confident against Stanford, in which he earned two tackles and a sack. He earned that start after playing against Washington State and blocking a field goal in the loss.
Tupai, now listed No. 2 on the depth chart at left defensive end for the first time this season, said it was difficult to find words that described what it was like to play well in his first start.
“I had to get the jitters out,” he said. “I felt relaxed with the guys playing (with) me. I felt ready. I honestly can’t describe the feeling. I was just blessed to be out there.”
Tupai earned his start because of injuries, and he did exactly what coaches preach is vital to a team’s success.
“Maxs played tremendously,” said linebackers coach Justin Ena. “His number was called and he came out and did a great job. … He stepped up and kind of solidified a spot for himself.”
Ena wasn’t the only coach to compliment Tupai’s play against Stanford, head coach Kyle Whittingham also praised his play. Tupai’s performance may have surprised some, but Ena said he was just living up to the potential coaches saw early in fall camp.
I had to get the jitters out. I felt relaxed with the guys playing (with) me. I felt ready. I honestly can’t describe the feeling. I was just blessed to be out there. – Maxs Tupai
“We saw it during the first couple of weeks of practice,” Ena said. “He’s so athletic naturally. He’s big and strong. He’s put it all together. He’s a special talent.”
The Murray High alum said he’s gained confidence and comfort as he’s studied and learned the different aspects of Utah’s defense and his position.
“I always feel like I could get better,” he said. “I just put my head down and worked.” He said coach Gary Andersen has been a mentor and role model to him, even though he said he has trouble expressing what it is the defensive line and associate head coach does that builds confidence in the Utes.
“It’s just the energy he brings,” Tupai said. “All of the coaches bring a great energy, but Coach A, we vibe off of him.”
He said both defensive line coach Lewis Powell and Andersen are high-intensity leaders, and that’s been helpful in building his confidence. He’s just trying to remain diligent and patient, even as the excitement builds for Friday’s game against Arizona.
Tupai is humble, but that doesn’t mean he’s insecure. He’s a man of few words, and he admits he has a hard time seeing himself as a leader.
“He’s not much of a chatter,” Ena said. “But that’s a nice thing. There are enough guys that speak up. If he sees something, he says something. …When he comes onto the football field, he’s a monster.”
Aside from his physical abilities, Ena said his calm is one of his best traits.
“He doesn’t go with the ebbs and flow,” Ena said. “He just stays right even. I’m excited to see him throughout the future doing what he’s doing.”
It isn’t always easy transitioning from a highly recruited prep athlete to a college athlete fighting for playing time.
“I feel like a lot of players will come to college, and they will be discouraged,” he said. “Everybody in college is good. Everybody who comes to college used to be ‘the man’ at their school. You just try to keep yourself motivated that you can do it.”
Tupai said trying to earn a spot on Utah’s vaunted defensive line, the critical pillar of the program’s most consistent position group, is the opposite of pressure-packed or daunting.
“It’s definitely fun,” he said grinning, acknowledging that those high expectations may be tempered by what the coaches ask of them. “The number one thing they say is, ‘Do your job.’ Honestly it helps. Instead of worrying about what other people are doing, you just worry about what you’re doing.”