Forcing his shoulder into the chest of oncoming defenders and dragging tacklers for first downs, Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau looks as if he has been lining up in the shotgun and running with the ball since he started playing football.
So you wouldn’t guess that Liufau, the Tacoma native and former Bellarmine Prep star, quarterbacked a pro-style, under-center offense in high school.
“We couldn’t afford to get him hurt,” Bellarmine coach Brian Jensen said with a laugh. “We certainly could have done that with him here. He’s very gifted, skillwise, and he can do a wide range of things. He’s willing to do what it takes.”
There is a logical explanation for why, despite running so little in high school, Liufau was able to develop into such a productive, power runner at the college level — one of the reasons the senior quarterback has his Buffaloes in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game against the Washington Huskies.
Liufau’s father, Joe, was in the Army when Sefo was growing up, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The family lived on base when Sefo was young, but he still spent plenty of time there after they moved, visiting the commissary, using the gym, getting his hair cut.
And playing basketball with his dad’s Army buddies.
They were not the most gifted players, Liufau said, “but they think they’re pretty good.” They were also particularly physical, and as a boy, Liufau learned that he could not deter their aggression by crying for fouls.
“You can’t complain for fouls, or they’ll get upset with you because you’re so young,” Liufau said. “It was always fun to be able to play with them. To me, those were like the older kids, and you always wanted to play with them and look good.”
So it is little surprise that the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder raised in an Army family wound up a pretty tough dude. He didn’t have much choice, given the way his college career developed. He has been hit hard and often. He was diagnosed with a concussion his sophomore season. A Lisfranc injury and subsequent surgery forced him to miss the last two games of last season. Colorado won only two Pac-12 games in Liufau’s first three years in Boulder. The Buffaloes were picked to finish last in the South division again this season.
But Liufau had a feeling this year would be better. Summer conditioning felt different, he said, and when the Buffaloes jumped to a 21-7 first-half lead over then-No. 4 Michigan in the second game of the season, he sensed the team gaining confidence.
Colorado eventually lost that game, 45-28, after Liufau sprained his ankle and had to watch from the sidelines. But the Buffaloes left Ann Arbor feeling they could compete with anybody.
Liufau missed CU’s next two games — both victories, first at Oregon, then home against Oregon State — and barely played in the Buffaloes’ 20-17 defeat at USC, their only league loss. But he returned healthy the following week against Arizona State, and guided Colorado to six consecutive victories to finish the regular season.
His numbers aren’t eye-catching. He has rushed 146 times for 483 yards and seven touchdowns, and completes 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,150 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. But Liufau presents a unique challenge to opposing defenses with his physical running style. In Colorado’s 38-24 victory over Washington State two weeks ago, he finished with 108 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries, and he threw for 345 yards.
“The guy just keeps coming,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “He goes out, (and you think) ‘Oh, the guy’s out,’ then he comes back in. The guy is a tough, tough, tough competitor. He’s got my respect, got our team’s respect. We’ve got to be ready for him.”
Said UW coach Chris Petersen: “He’ll put his pads down, and you look up and he’s got 3 yards or he’s got 4 yards by tough running.”
Playing against Washington provokes no special feelings, Liufau said, because he didn’t grow up a Huskies fan, and received only “the slightest of attention” from UW during his recruitment. Instead, he’s simply excited to play for a Pac-12 championship, quarterbacking a team that occupied the Pac-12 South basement each of the last five years.
Jensen says he frequently tells his Bellarmine players that “hard work works,” and he presents Liufau as the embodiment of that refrain.
“He is a kid who has been blessed with lots of gifts, but the cool thing with him is he wants to give his gifts away,” Jensen said. “He wants his team to be successful. He’s a self-starter, he’s ready to go, but he’s an ultimate competitor, and he has this sincere humbleness. His teammates want to play for him.”
Jensen added Liufau visits when he is back home in Tacoma, typically dropping off Colorado gear for the coach’s two young kids. Those kids have become “Sefo’s biggest fans,” wearing his jersey and positioning themselves in front of the television for every Buffaloes game.
Liufau said he isn’t sure how many family members will travel from Washington to Santa Clara for Friday’s game, though he joked that “I’ll probably find out it’s a bigger number than I expected.”
Many will be watching back home.
“It’s going to be a great game Friday,” Jensen said. “We’re just super proud of him.”