If you’re looking for pure strength along the interior offensive line, look no further than UCLA guard Atonio Mafi.
A defensive tackle-turned-offensive lineman, Mafi broke out in 2022 as a second-team All-Pac-12 guard in his first full season as a starter at the new position. He’s pound-for-pound one of the strongest blockers in the 2023 NFL Draft, and he’s looking to carry his upside and collegiate success onto the next level.
Mafi spoke with Windy City Gridiron about his defensive background, his experience at the Shrine Bowl, the influence of his father in his life, and more.
JI: You started out your time as a defensive lineman at UCLA. Can you speak to how that background has helped you at guard?
AM: Mostly just understanding how a d-lineman would want to defeat my block, what kind of block I’m trying to do, the way a d-lineman would respond. I tend to try and think in-game, whatever plays we call, this is how the d-lineman will try and defeat that, trying to understand that. Then, [I] just try to make sure that I don’t give him the chance to do that. The other big thing is having that mentality of a d-lineman. The linemen are usually rough and edgy guys, and I just try to bring that stuff along, as well.
JI: You’re one of the most tenacious run blockers I’ve watched in this class. In addition to that defensive line mentality, what goes into playing with that mean mentality?
AM: Yeah, the biggest thing is just trying to understand that you’re trying to set the tone, trying to make a d-lineman understand that is how it’s gonna be, and you’re gonna do it...early on in the game, and just let them know it’s just gonna keep happening for the rest of the game. That makes him play a hair slower, and then you can keep taking advantage of that. [You] gotta have that mindset to go right off the bat.
JI: You had the chance to participate in the Shrine Bowl. How was that experience for you?
AM: It was definitely awesome. It was a blessing, man. It was cool. Having played on the West Coast my whole life, getting to play against some guys from different conferences was really cool. It felt good to measure up against guys that were in the same draft class to see where I was at, so I was excited about that.
JI: What takeaways did you get from working with NFL coaches and meeting with teams?
AM: It meant a lot [to get] a little taste of what a week would look like [in the NFL]. We were working with the Patriots [coaching staff]. It was really cool, working with the o-line coach, and Bill Belichick was there as well in more of an oversight of role, but it was just cool to have him in meetings and stuff. [I got] a little taste of what’s to come in a few months.
JI: I’m very happy for you your dad made a full recovery from his illness. Can you speak a bit to how that weighed on you this past year and your relief once he recovered?
AM: Oh yeah, definitely. My dad’s my best friend. A lot of people, a lot of my uncles and aunts, and all elderly family members, they say I look just like him when he was the same age as me right now. He means a lot to me. Going into fall camp when that was all happening, it was a little rough time for me, but it definitely gave me more motivation. My dad was telling me to do what I can, to control what I can control. The rest will take care of itself. I’m just happy with the way things went on, with his health. I’m just ready to make that next step and have him there with me.
JI: Your cousin Devin Asiasi’s in the NFL. What’s your relationship like with him, and have you talked with him a bit as you’re going through this process?
AM: Most definitely. It’s kind of funny, because I was actually committed to Cal a good portion of high school, and then he was transferring from Michigan to UCLA right around the time I was signing, so he helped me make that jump, switch on Signing Day and whatnot to UCLA. He’s always been that mentor role for me. Now, with the [NFL Draft], he was definitely big for me, when I was picking out an agent, where I wanted to train and whatnot, and then especially in this role, he checks up on me. The biggest thing I think that I’ve learned from him was just to focus on living my life as a professional athlete. Now, I don’t have school, and I don’t have all these other commitments I have. I’m strictly a football player; I’m a professional now. He wanted to emphasize to me was that I got to be able to handle that. I’m just happy that I have a family member that’s already in this role, and I have someone to lean on that I was already close with before, so I’m just so blessed with that.
JI: Do you have any preference as to which blocking scheme you play at in the NFL?
AM: I don’t have any preferences; I’m willing to do whatever the team that drafts me wants me to do. I’ve heard a lot of things. A lot of people see me fitting into a gap scheme, but I don’t want to put myself into a box yet. [I] want to go with whatever needs to be done.
JI: How do you spend your free time outside of football?
AM: Off the field, most definitely it’s playing rugby. Being in college, I couldn’t play on a team or anything like that, but I love going out with the boys, teaching others the game and just playing around, tossing the rugby ball around, kicking [it] around. [It’s] something that I really enjoy doing. That was actually something that stemmed from my dad, because my dad actually played for the Tonga national rugby team, so rugby’s always been a fun thing for me to do.
JI: How would you say playing rugby’s helped you out playing football?
AM: I’d say it definitely helped me out. First of all, when I was playing defense, just being able to understand leverage and tackling, but then just overall, helping me be more athletic. Even though I’m a larger and bigger guy, being able to run the ball and being in open space helped me with my footwork and being able to change direction. I’d say that was the biggest thing that rugby helped me with, was playing into my body size and being able to be more athletic in open space.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
AM: Right away, you’re gonna get a guy that’s handling business on and off the field. The biggest thing I’m trying to emphasize is I’m trying to be a professional athlete, and I’m trying to live my life that way and be solely about football. I don’t have any plans of sitting behind; I’m coming into work, and if I can earn playing time, I’m gonna do it, and then I’m gonna keep it. I’m gonna stay on the field once I get it.
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