Saturday, October 8, 2011
DT George Uko getting to know himself
By Pedro Moura
George Uko, USC's redshirt freshman defensive tackle with massive talent and a massive frame to match, is as candid a player as you'll find in major college football.
He says what he's thinking and describes how he's feeling, not what he's supposed to think and how he's supposed to feel. And, at this point five games into in his first collegiate season, he's not overly pleased with how he's been playing.
The word he uses to describe his play? "Average," he says -- nothing more, nothing less. But, in his next breath, he admits that word is part of an "inner game" he challenges himself with.
From an objective perspective, he's played well this year, consistently getting into the backfield and disrupting pass plays. He doesn't have a sack, but he's made five tackles near the line of scrimmage and also knocked down a pass. But, on this bye week Saturday, his unique approach is more important than ever as he works to keep improving.
"I'm working on getting better in the things I don't trust in my game," the 6-3, 295-pound Uko said this week. "I'm just getting to know myself on the playing field -- what I'm good at, what my weaknesses are.
"And this week's a great time to work on your weaknesses."
Uko, 19, falls right in the middle of the old-young dichotomy of a bye. He's not old enough to get a break, and he's not young enough to get his first meaningful playing time. Instead, he's left to battle himself and work on that inner game.
"The hardest part is to not let your mind get to you and try to prepare like you're playing a game when you know in the back of your mind that you aren't," Uko says. " You think, 'I ain't got nothing this week. I ain't gotta prepare for nothing, so why do I gotta practice hard?'
"But it's just something, being a top elite athlete, that you gotta do, keep yourself going every day."
Last year, as he redshirted, USC head coach Lane Kiffin dropped hints now and then that Uko could have contributed to the 2010 squad. In practice, he sometimes dominated, and he probably would have fit in just fine as the No. 3 tackle behind Jurrell Casey and DaJohn Harris, as he is this year behind Harris and Christian Tupou.
And Kiffin is pleased with his contributions.
"I think he's doing really well," Kiffin said Friday. "Because of the other guys in there, he's obviously not starting or getting as much reps as he would if he was a starter but I think he's done well at times in there.
"Like anything, he's still a freshman, so there's a learning curve and he's screwed up a little bit when he's in there, with some assignments. But he'll be a really, really good player in there for us like a lot of guys in that class."
Uko disagrees with his head coach. He insists he's been just average this season. But that assessment is relative -- he's been average compared to where he wants to be, not average compared to other 19-year-old defensive tackles.
"I want to be the best of the best," he says. "That's what I pride myself to be like -- the Nick Fairley's, the Ndamukong Suh's, the Warren Sapp's -- that's how I try to represent myself.
"And I don't feel like I'm playing up to where that criteria should be. I'm not playing that great. I mean, I'm doing alright. I'm helping the team out in certain aspects. But I feel like I could do more."
He has the body to be that type of player. At nearly 300 pounds, he's been timed as fast as 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and he's the fastest of the Trojan interior linemen. But he's also capable in the run game. His senior season at Don Lugo in Chino, he had 91 tackles, an abnormally high number for a tackle, to go along with his 15 sacks.
Kiffin said Uko "is kind of a mixture" of USC's two starting defensive tackles in that sense. He's half-Tupou, a nose tackle, and half-Harris, a big pass-rushing under tackle.
But, for right now -- in his mind, at least -- he's just their backup.
"Being the third defensive tackle is the most important job I have," Uko says. "Basically, I just owe it to Christian and [Harris], with all the time they've put in. I feel like I owe it to them to give it all I got because it's their last year and it's all on them.
"They're trying to get to the league, they're trying to do their thing, so, being the young pup and stuff, being the third-string, I gotta just come up to their standards and be able to perform and show them I can play."