Elliott, Nofoagatoto’a soaking up first-year experience

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Throughout the Hoosiers’ entire squad, there is an appreciation for what’s already been accomplished in an 8-4 season, as well as the opportunity ahead in Thursday’s Gator Bowl matchup with Tennessee.

But in the heart of Indiana’s defensive line, sophomore Demarcus Elliott and freshman Sio Nofoagatoto’a provide two larger-than-life examples of that appreciation.

Nofoagatoto’a recently shared via social media an old photo from American Samoa, which showed himself and former youth football teammate Mataio Soli, now at Arkansas, sitting on a practice field strewn with rocks. Their arms and legs used to be cut and bruised from playing on that surface.

“Growing up, we shared helmets and cleats, we didn’t have a gym to work out in, we practiced on rocks,” Nofoagatoto’a said. “Just coming here to college has made me grateful.”

Elliott was thinking back to the weight room at his junior college, which could only fit a handful of people at a time. A year later, an under-recruited defensive tackle from Garden City, Kan., has found himself with a chance to develop within the more spacious confines of a Big Ten program.

He now finds himself in Florida for a post-New Year’s bowl. He had never stepped foot on a beach until this last week. He hadn’t eaten much seafood, either.

“I never had lobster tail before. We had the things in the shells, where you have to suck them out,” Elliott said, before being told those are oysters. “I didn’t do that, though. Can’t do that. It don’t look good.”

The leaps Elliott and Nofoagatoto’a have made in the last few years, as they reminisced Tuesday prior to a bowl practice at Fernandina Beach High, were something to behold. This season, by itself, has brought changing circumstances.

Elliott, added to the roster in May, quickly ascended the depth chart in fall camp, nailing down a starting defensive tackle spot by Week 2, and was honorable mention All-Big Ten for his efforts. Nofoagatoto’a, in his first year of college football, didn’t play much until IU’s fifth game versus Michigan State, but now his 327-pound frame has become more of a fixture in the Hoosier line rotation. 

“Coming in, I didn’t really know him, but knowing those Samoans, they different,” Elliott said, smiling. “But yeah, he’s my guy. He’s been a lot of help, and he’s challenged me to get better, because I can’t be satisfied with a starting spot, because he can take it right from me.”

While the defensive line — and the defense, in general — has much room to grow, IU coach Tom Allen comes into Thursday’s bowl with Tennessee feeling much better about his defensive tackles than he did in the preseason. Coming into 2019, the Hoosiers’ interior front line was largely an unknown aside from redshirt junior Jerome Johnson.

In Elliott and Nofoagatoto’a, the Hoosiers have two 320-plus-pound bodies that are logging significant snaps. Add that pair to 2020 signee Damarjhe Lewis, a 6-foot-3, 295-pounder from Griffin, Ga., who had offers from Auburn, Florida State, and Penn State, among others, and IU’s future at defensive tackle appears set.

“I was concerned a year ago about our inside guys on the d-line and knew we had to get a good class of guys,” Allen said. “Did that a year ago, and those guys have really proven to be the group we thought they were going to be and, obviously, their best football is in front of them.

“Much to be developed, much to work on. But just to have a nucleus of guys that are freshmen and sophomores, that we know we can count on, they are going to be big, strong guys to anchor the middle. They will keep getting bigger and stronger with the weight program we have here.”

Elliott, in particular, was one of the biggest surprises of the season, racking up 32 tackles, five for loss. As a post-spring roster addition, he didn’t know what to expect from his first year in the Big Ten. But he knew what he wanted to prove.

It was time to show the schools that overlooked him, in Kansas and elsewhere, that they were wrong.

Elliott described his first start against Eastern Illinois as a weight off his chest. He knew he belonged. Now, Elliott will find himself across the line of scrimmage from an All-SEC selection in Tennessee junior Trey Smith, a five-star prospect coming out of high school in 2017.

“You watch the big D-I teams on TV … and making it here? It’s surreal,” Elliott said.

It’s also been an experience for Elliott to just be a part of a football family, which wasn’t the case at the JUCO level, where everyone is trying to punch a ticket elsewhere.

Somewhat reserved, Elliott was encouraged by senior linebacker Reakwon Jones to come out of his shell a little bit more, whether that be talking more in meetings or hanging out with the guys.

“Once you get to know these guys, you find brothers for life,” Elliott said.

One of those brothers is Nofoagatoto’a, who has had a whirlwind journey of his own. He’s originally from American Samoa, making stops in Australia and Florida before ending up in Bloomington.

He played his junior and senior years of prep football at Clearwater Academy International, about four hours south from where the Hoosiers are practicing for the bowl. Not that long ago, he was a rugby player. He also competed in volleyball and swimming growing up.

Then, in Clearwater, he was being recruited by IU’s coaches, told about their expectations for turning around the program.

“I know our class, they were preaching what we could do,” said Nofoagatoto’a, one of a couple dozen Hoosiers with roots in the Sunshine State. “We talked about being in a bowl game at this time. It’s good to be back in my second home state, just to have everyone back home in Florida.”

Because of his humble roots, Nofoagatoto’a is especially motivated to capitalize on his opportunities. He knows he can be an example for the little boys watching back in American Samao.

Nofoagatoto’a points to Oregon’s Penei Sewell, who just won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best lineman, as another player who has represented his home well. Sewell, like Soli, competed alongside Nofoagatoto’a in American Samoa.

“Every day, I just look back on where I come from, and just knowing there is a kid going through that right now, just being a motivation for them,” Nofoagatoto’a said. “There are a lot of Polynesians doing great things … and it’s a good thing for our community.”

Elliott and Nofoagatoto’a have been enjoying this experience for themselves, as well.

From very poor swings at a local driving range, to tasting some seafood, to waking up every morning to ocean views, the Gator Bowl has been quite the business trip for the Hoosiers.

Winning the game versus Tennessee would only add to what’s already been an incredible first year for both.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Elliott said. “We have a team that plays for each other, love each other, and it makes you want to work 10 times harder for each other.”

7 comments

  1. I will enjoy watching these two guys growing and getting better over the next few seasons. IU pulled in another DT in this 2020 class so the DL should get better in the next few years. I hope Sio coming to IU opens up a pipeline with more Samoa players to IU. I hope Sio can influence several Samoa players about how good it is to be at IU and playing for coach Allen and staff.

    Elliot has been a very good DT faster than I thought he would be. He sounds like he is in heaven after his Jr college experience. With the weight training he missed before IU, he could really improve next year.

    With several young DL that are freshman or red freshman IU should have a much better DL in the next couple of years.

  2. I know some people on this blog has criticize PF Fleck as a slick oil/car salesman and really criticize the “row your boat” slogan….Well whatever he is doing at Minnesota is “WORKING”…Not only working on the field (win-loss record) it is working in recruiting also. Minnesota really played a very good game against Auburn. As PJ Fleck said at the end of the game….”If you want to join the “BLUE BLOODS” you have to “BEAT” the blue bloods” – well said.
    In regards to Indiana playing Tennessee on Thursday…..hopefully Indiana is ready to go…but history points to Indiana getting some really stupid/ill-timed/reckless penalties. An at least one player getting ejected from the game for a helmet-to-helmet hit (ill advise hit). This game will go a long way about advising how good this team is this year – can Indiana beat someone with a winning record. As PJ Fleck to get to blue blood status or middle of the pack status, you have to beat someone with a “WINNING” record.

  3. Minn played well and beat a good Auburn team. They over-achieved today, and the win was good for the Big Ten Conference. Auburn was motivated and ready to play, so there were no excuses. I loved the looks of disbelief on the faces of those Auburn fans at the end of the game. Hope we see the same looks on the faces of Ten fans tomorrow night.

    Fleck is building a strong program at MN, but he’s going to lose a lot of talent and experience to graduation. So we’ll see if he can sustain the momentum next season. Before he starts talking about beating “blue bloods,” he’s got to figure how to beat Wisconsin. And when he does that, he’s got to figure out how to beat OSU. I think MN will continue to be a second-tier Big Ten team until Fleck gets lured away to one of those Blue Blood FB schools.

    These types of wins should quiet some of the talk about how weak the Big Ten’s West Division is.

  4. The “blue bloods” of college football are Clemson, Alabama and LSU….

    Big Ten is not holding up well against the relevant teams in the big bowls.

    Michigan could only contain Alabama for one half…It mirrored Hoosier games against the cream of the crop from our conference.

    If the top teams from our conference can’t get the job done or hold their own against the best of the SEC, it only magnifies just how far behind Hoosier football is from truly elite programs(because the “elite” of the BigTen is really not very elite).

    And how insulting was it to the Wolverines and Harbaugh when Alabama put another punch to the face of Michigan by pounding another score into the end zone when they could have just taken the knee with only seconds remaining in a game long decided?

    Those are statements, folks. Albeit dirty statements containing zero fear of future retaliation in future games because the bully is that much bigger and stronger. No sleep lost here…because I can’t stand Harbaugh anyway. I cheer for the SEC before that moron.

  5. I think Minnesota beat Wisconsin (37-15) in 2018…An the Minnesota program has had back to back winning seasons. IMO PJ Fleck has the Minnesota program heading in the right direction and It looks like Minnesota is ready to compete regularly for the Big Ten West title. Everybody has to figure out how to beat OSU….I believe OSU has only lost four (Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Iowa) games in the Big Ten the last five years. So yes they are second tier to OSU, but so is everybody else. It will be interesting to compare in the future where Indiana football is compared to Minnesota and Illinois.
    If Indiana beats Tennessee on Thursday would this be a “breakthrough” season?

    1. People tend to forget MN was a 9 win program with several years at that level when Fleck took over going 5-7 his first year. Fleck also had a ESPN show that elevated his recruiting but he clearly has done a good job turning the team into one that can compete with the upper level in FB.

      I hope IU shows that they are just one year behind MN rise and can repeat their success next year.

  6. There are enough exposed vowels in Indiana and Tennessee to be playing in a Vanna White Bowl.

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